sleep TED talks

Sleep Takeaways from Experts at TED Conference

It has been my observation that far too many people are lulled into believing that sleep is simply the absence of being awake. In reality, this is a mistake.

At this year’s annual TED Conference recently held in Vancouver, there were more than 90 thought-provoking TED talks covering topics important and relevant to our culture. TED is so-named because of its original focus on technology, entertainment and design. But despite it’s clear and longstanding focus on cutting edge technologies, globally complex issues, and future-oriented innovations, sleep was not overlooked. In fact, the importance of sleep was touched on by many speakers. What they had to say on the subject of sleep – whether head-on or tucked in to the context of a broader discussion – was eye-opening.

There are some valuable takeaways from highly esteemed speakers that you can apply to your personal sleep health. Let’s take a closer look at their conclusions.

Do Screens Enhance Our Lives?

First up was business and psychology professor Adam Alter, who raised concerns about whether or not screens are actually enhancing our lives. He has calculated the average numbers of hours we spend on everyday tasks, and found that time spent sleeping — an average of 8.5 hours per 24 hour day — has thus far remained relatively constant, and surprisingly high, since 2005. However, Alter went on to share that what has changed considerably is what we do with our three hours per day of “personal white space,” a space Alter contends “is where humanity happens” and where technology and screen use has gone from occupying minimal to most of the time.

In the same area of thought, psychologist and The Wall Street Journal social science columnist Susan Pinker added that we now spend more time online than any other activity, including sleep!

Based on their comments, I was left thinking about technology’s relationship to sleep, and worrying about it’s potential intrusion on our sleep habits – a concern that only increased when ex-Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris shared a quote from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who was said to have declared that “[Netflix’s] biggest competitors are YouTube, Facebook and sleep!”

The Importance of Sleep on Our Health

This observation should serve as a particularly alarming wake-up call, given all we know about the importance of getting enough sleep. Renowned neuroscientists Lisa Genova and Robert Sapolsky each provided supporting evidence that addresses what science now tells us can happen when you shortchange yourself on sleep. Genova explained that slow wave deep sleep is like “a power cleanse for the brain,” while a single night of sleep deprivation can result in an increase in the molecule amyloid beta, which has been implicated for its role in causing Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, “good sleep hygiene” may well slow down the molecular cascade leading to a very serious mental health issues.

In his biology of behavior talk, Sapolsky discussed sleep’s impact on a different kind of cascade – a cascade involving a whole series of factors ranging from split-second processes to cross-generational impacts that ultimately affect how and why we make the decisions we do. He found that simply being tired is enough to make us react more impulsively, since lack of sleep is known to impair functioning of the “stop-and-think” portion of the brain called the prefrontal cortex.

Another talk really intriguing talk was by globally renowned genomics researcher Wang Jun. He subjected himself to, among other things, two nights without sleep in order to quantify the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation. While making the case for digital literacy and the benefits of boredom, tech podcaster Manoush Zomorodi cited research showing that the less sleep we get, the more likely we are to check Facebook — a habit of increasing frequency that drains cognitive energy and takes away from our brain’s time spent in the problem solving “default mode.”

How We Sleep

Switching from the brain and the body to the beds we sleep in, Gapminder co-founder Anna Rosling Ronnlund shared representative photographs taken of approximately 135 common objects found in 264 homes in 54 countries. Making the point that the need for a place to sleep is universal to all 7 billion people on the planet, she included photographs of beds and bedrooms from around the world. Her images show the types of bedrooms in which we sleep (and by extension, how well we sleep), is not simply a result of culture or continents. The main differentiator, she found, is income.

To round out the list, author Ann Lamott made a simple yet insightful observation that could be applied both to our use of technology, and to sleep, concluding that “almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes… That includes you.”

These poignant observations by respected figures in our culture should serve as an alarming wake-up call about the importance of getting enough sleep. For anyone who now feels compelled to get a bit more shut eye, you will hopefully rest assured that by doing so, you’ll be doing yourself – your body, your mind and your overall state of well-being – a whole lot of good.

About The Author

Dr. Laura Jana As director of innovation at The University of Nebraska Medical Center, Dr. Laura Jana is a pediatrician, award-winning author and health communicator specializing in a wide range of health topics – from early literacy, child care and development, to health and nutrition promotion, among others. With degrees from the University of Michigan and Case Western Reserve University, Dr. Jana focuses her efforts on pediatric and health-related issues extending well beyond the four walls of a pediatric office. Dr. Jana co-founded the Dr. Spock Company – one of the first online health sites ever – in 1999, and also founded her own company, Practical Parenting Consulting, shortly after. Her passion for promoting a healthy lifestyle for children and has been recognized on a national level, as reflected by her role in the nationally-acclaimed “Learn the Signs. Act Early!” campaign, which is dedicated to increasing awareness of the importance of social, emotional and cognitive development in our nation’s youth. As media spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Jana has also served on the National Executive Committee for Early Education and Child Care. Her professional efforts are increasingly dedicated to addressing the earliest and most pressing needs of children and families. When she’s not giving speeches or traveling, Dr. Jana enjoys spending time with her husband and their three teenagers. Best Night’s Sleep: Dr. Jana gets her best night’s sleep when she returns home from a trip and gets to sleep in her own king-sized bed with her blackout curtains drawn. The best nights – getting to wake up without having to set an alarm!

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