Thomas Edison and the Cult of Sleep Deprivation

The man who gave us the incandescent light bulb thought we should never turn out the lights at all.
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Thomas Edison listening to a wax cylinder phonograph at the Edison laboratory in Orange, New Jersey. (Museum of Innovation and Science/Wikimedia)

The March/April issue of Bethesda Magazine, a regional publication that covers a wealthy area of Washington, D.C., drew some unusually heavy attention on the web for a profile of Melissa “Missy” Lesmes, “a veritable supermom.”

“A fit, petite, vivacious blonde, Missy is at age 46 a wife, a mother of four kids ranging in age from 11 to 18 and all in separate schools, a partner at a prestigious Washington, D.C. law firm ... a party maven always up for a gathering at her Chevy Chase home, a longtime friend to women who profess she’s always there when they need her, and a woman who still manages to give back to the community.”

She's super, Q.E.D.

The title of the piece was “We Don’t Know How She Does It.” But how she does indeed do it became clear when the magazine described Lesmes’ daily schedule:

“Missy rises at 5:30 a.m. to run on the Capital Crescent Trail or head downtown to work out with a personal trainer. She’s back home by 7 to make sure the kids are awake and getting ready for school.

... “Arrives at her spacious office by 8:30 or so”

... “gets home between 7:30 and 8”

Then: dinner, which the couple eats standing up, homework help, and climbing into bed at “10 or 10:30”—to finish a brief. Lights out at midnight.

As the definition of modern success inflates, one way Lesmes and other high-achievers accomplish the impossible is by cutting back on sleep.

Sleep loss by income quintile. (Annals of Epidemiology)

For some, sleep loss is a badge of honor, a sign that they don’t require the eight-hour biological reset that the rest of us softies do. Others feel that keeping up with peers requires sacrifice at the personal level—and at least in the short-term, sleep is an invisible sacrifice.

The problem has accelerated with our hyper-connected lives, but it isn't new. Purposeful sleep deprivation originates from the lives and adages of some of America's early business tycoons.

Lesmes told Bethesda Magazine she worked her way through high school and college. “That was the point I realized I wanted to keep busy,” she said. And “once I started down that road, I started to realize I like having [money], so that motivated me a lot as well.”

Still, she feels inadequate: “I can’t be the perfect mom. I want to be, but there’s just not enough time, not enough hours.”

***

You don’t need Arianna Huffington to tell you that most adults should sleep seven to nine hours per night, but they don’t. A 2010 CDC survey of more than 15,000 adults found that 30 percent of workers sleep six or fewer hours a day. And although sleep deprivation is particularly common among those who work graveyard shifts, traditional, but long, working hours can also be a problem. A 2009 study of British civil servants found that those who worked more than 55 hours a week, compared with 35 to 40 hours, were nearly twice as likely to be short on sleep.

Sleep loss is most common among older workers (ages 30 to 64), and among those who earn little and work multiple jobs. Still, about a quarter of people in the top income quintile report regularly being short on sleep, and sleep deprivation across all income groups has been rising over the years. A group of sleep researchers recently told the BBC that people are now getting one or two hours less shut-eye each night than they did 60 years ago, primarily because of the encroachment of work into downtime and the proliferation of blue-light emitting electronics.

"We are the supremely arrogant species; we feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle,” Oxford University Professor Russell Foster said. "And long-term, acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems."

These problems include well-documented correlations with heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and accidents. A March study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that long-term sleep loss was associated with permanent brain damage in rats.

***

Some people stay awake because they can’t or don’t want to sleep—they have insomnia, or their Netflix queues beckon. But surveys suggest that at least for some workers, sleep is the first thing to go when there’s pressure to get more done. A quarter of Americans say that their current workday or routine doesn’t allow them to get as much sleep as they’d like.

Indeed, profiles of the rich and productive are riddled with humble-braggy quotes about how little they rest. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer reportedly sleeps just four to six hours per night. She makes up for it, she says, “by taking week-long vacations every four months.”

MSNBC’s Willie Geist, former host of the 5:30 a.m. show “Way Too Early,” used a psychological trick to fool himself into thinking he was well-rested, even on no sleep: “If you catch your body at a weak moment, as I often do, it might actually believe you when you tell it after four hours of sleep that you actually slept a full night and you feel like a million bucks.”

Jack Dorsey, founder of both Square and Twitter, once said he spends up to 10 hours a day at each company. The remaining four, presumably, are for sleep and whatever else.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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