If you had a choice between eating broccoli or chocolate, you’d be most likely to choose chocolate, even though you know it is not as healthy. Many of us choose to do something that’s not good for us even when we know there’s a healthier alternative, which is why many of us don’t get a sufficient amount of sleep. A professor with a classroom full of sleep-deprived students at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, found out that just telling his students that sleep is important wasn’t enough, he had to show them.
It’s not as if Professor Michael Scullin’s students were sleep-drooling on their desks for the duration of his classes, but nodding off at inopportune moments isn’t the only symptom of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can lead to difficulty focusing and controlling emotions, and can even put people at higher risk of developing diseases.
Scullin teaches about sleep science (the study of how sleep affects the body), so he would have been remiss not to tell his students all this. But though the students learned this, they continued to get as little as five hours of sleep. Perhaps the students were so sleep deprived that getting enough sleep wasn’t sinking in?
“When you are the most sleep-deprived is when you are least likely to be able to judge how sleepy you are, and how much that is impacting you,” Scullin said. He was not certain if that was happening to his students, but he knew he wanted to find a way to make his students get more sleep.
Scullin decided to set up an experiment, telling his students that if they agreed to sleep at least eight hours per night for the five nights before their final exam for the class, they would get extra credit points. They did not have to accede to the deal, but if they did, but failed to sleep for eight hours per night, they would lose points instead. Scullin tracked which students slept by giving them devices to wear that would record their sleep data. Just eight of his students agreed, and all scored better than those who didn’t take part, some even without the extra credit points.
Scullin decided to repeat the experiment, this time with a new group of 16 students. He told these students that they’d get extra credit if they got the eight hours of sleep, but unlike the previous group of students, he did not threaten to take points off their test scores if they didn’t get enough sleep. Still, the results were very similar to the first.
Only a small number of students participated, so Scullin’s study alone may not be enough to prove that sleep is crucial, but the results are similar to what other studies have shown: Enough sleep makes it easier to focus and do tasks well. Scullin’s students were thrilled to find that what they learned in class was true, and their higher test scores were a nice bonus.
Speculating that this means Scullin’s students will start getting eight or more hours of sleep every single night from now on is likely just as implausible as the idea that you’d renounce all chocolate in favour of broccoli. But maybe, just maybe, these students will start augmenting their nightly sleep regimen by a couple more hours.