Early work and school days have long been seen as an inconvenient fact of life, but new science suggests that start times should be pushed back to as late as 11 a.m. to combat sleep deprivation. Furthermore, the evidence shows that sleep deprivation equates to torture.
Dr. Paul Kelley, a neuroscientist and research associate at the Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, says young people in Britain are suffering from more sleep deprivation than a junior doctor on a 24-hour shift. The cause? Early school start times.
Millions of years of evolution cannot simply be ignored for the sake of cultural conditioning, argues Dr. Kelley. For example, “[y]our liver and your heart have different patterns and you’re asking them to shift two or three hours.” Kelley states that, “We cannot change our 24-hour rhythms. You cannot learn to get up at a certain time. Your body will be attuned to sunlight and you’re not conscious of it because it reports to the hypothalamus, not sight.”
According to Kelley, teenagers have circadian rhythms, or “body clocks,” that are better suited to later start times. Starting school at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. could improve exam results by as much as 10% and extending later start times might also help adults, he said. Many people’s body clocks do not suit a 9 a.m. start time until we are 55 years, Kelley added.
“We’ve got a sleep-deprived society. It is hugely damaging on the body’s systems because you are affecting physical, emotional, and performance systems in the body.”
Dr. Kelley and team are leading a set of trials in schools called Teensleep. The trials, which will take place in the 2016-2017 academic year, will take 100 schools and assign students randomly to a 10 a.m. group and a 9 a.m. control group. Students will be assessed before and after the trail and some will be fitted with electronic monitoring devices to assess sleeping patterns.
Sleep deprivation, along with waterboarding and rectal feeding, is a favorite of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” — another word for garden variety torture. While not as extreme, “This applies in the bigger picture of prisons and hospitals,” Kelley stated, “They wake up people and give people food they don’t want. You’re more biddable because you’re totally out of it. Sleep deprivation is a torture.”
Dr. Kelley is not alone in his call for later start times. The Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that schools schedule classes later in the morning so students can get enough sleep to fully take advantage of the day.
These studies might not convince your boss to let you show up at 11, but one thing is for sure: most of us are not getting enough sleep. A 2013 Gallup survey found that 40 percent of American adults get less than seven to nine hours of sleep a night, which is the recommended allowance. Kelley points to lack of sleep as a “huge society” problem, and the CDC cites insufficient sleep as a public health issue. Despite the evidence, it is hard to imagine a sudden change in cultural norms.