On Tuesday, December 6, 2016, the Loomis Chaffee community welcomed renowned sleep specialist, Dr. James Maas, to the island. Dr. Maas, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, opened the all-school convocation by conducting a poll of the audience to determine the approximate number of hours of sleep individuals get each night. By a show of hands, the students revealed that the majority get approximately seven hours of sleep per night. “Most high school and college students are severely sleep deprived, walking zombies,” Maas joked. “Ninety-five percent of you don’t meet the recommended 9.25 hours of sleep every night.” He proceeded to show the audience several photographs and videos of celebrities and politicians who fell asleep on the job. The audience watched as a child dozed off behind President George W. Bush, and as Bill Clinton fell asleep at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Service. “Seventy-five percent of people experience sleep problems at least twice a week,” he explained. “Difficulty falling asleep. Waking up in the middle of the night. Waking up early, or a combination of the three. All of this causes daytime sleep inertia, which causes grogginess and a lack of mental clarity all day long.”
Dr. Maas spoke at length about how teens fall short of daily sleep requirements and lack quality sleep. He noted that while the average high school or college student sleeps approximately six to seven hours a night, they miss out on the most important stages of sleep that occur toward the end of the sleep cycle. For example, Dr. Maas noted that, “In stage two of sleep, which is dominant in the 6-8th hour, something happens. …They’re called sleep spindles, and they are the key to your hockey game, your lacrosse playing, your piano playing, anything involving hand-eye coordination.” He added that when students get only six or seven hours of sleep, they miss important stages of R.E.M. sleep, wherein our brains consolidate information previously saved as short term memories, retaining them as long term memories. “You wake up after six and a half or seven hours,” noted Dr. Maas, “and you’ve missed that last, longest period of R.E.M. sleep. That is detrimental to your present and your future success.” He stressed that missing this important period can cause one to experience several short-term symptoms, including lethargy, irritability, sickness, and the inability to process and recollect information with clarity. Dr. Maas further professed that there are several long term effects of sleep deprivation, including cancer, premature Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and premature death.
The most relevant connection for high school students made during the convocation was between sleep and academic and athletic performance. He detailed the case of a young girl named Sarah Hughes, who aspired to be an Olympic figure skater, but found herself unable to progress and compete with skaters her age. With Dr. Maas’ guidance, Hughes reconfigured her figure skating schedule to allow for more sleep. Hughes gradually improved her ability until she was a strong enough athlete to participate in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where she earned a gold medal.
Dr. Maas also shared his experience advocating for the reconfiguration of school schedules to maximize rest and, in turn, improve students’ academic performance. With Dr. Maas’ sleep research taken into account, Deerfield Academy altered its daily schedule, mandating that classes have a later 9:00 AM start time. The new schedule awarded the students an extra hour of sleep – a change that had a drastic impact on the academic performance of the student body. “They have been keeping track of grade point average since the founding of Deerfield in 1798,” said Dr. Maas. “We saw the greatest improvement in GPA in the first semester we did this experiment than in the history of Deerfield Academy.” He noted that schools all over the world are following suit.
While we are told that sleep is important and can lead to improved performance in many areas, it is clear that for many Loomis Chaffee students, getting the recommended amount of sleep is easier said than done. Dr. Maas suggested that there are some simple things that each student can do to maximize the length and quality of their rest. He noted that by prioritizing and not giving in to distractions, work can be completed more efficiently and the amount of time remaining for sleep will be greater. This would enable the brain to fully process the material covered during the school day. This sounds like a great idea in theory. However, Loomis students carry a significant workload on top of multiple extracurricular demands. It leads one to question whether or not it is possible, even with tremendous organization and intense focus, to complete hours of homework and still have time to sleep the number of hours that Dr. Maas has prescribed for growing teens. The convocation showed Loomis Chaffee students that they must find a balance between the amount of time spent on work to achieve academic success with time spent sleeping to ensure personal health. Are there enough hours in the day for both?