Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Sleep as Social Process; The Sadness of Science Journalism

with 2 comments

I have a friend whose job is, basically, all about communicating science ideas to the public for a major science organization. In grad school, he was the only non-communication-major in my group of friends (I think he studied environmental biology or chemistry, though I can never remember which), and we used to like—on boring, late-night, slightly-drunken metro rides—to play the game, “Ask Dr. Science!,” where we came up with inane, vaguely scientific questions and demanded answers from him. These days, I often send him science-y articles that catch my interest, and he tends to write me back lengthy responses about why this article is crap, or that finding is not as great as it’s being touted to be, etc. Which got me thinking: I think my blog needs an Ask Dr. Science! feature, obviously.

Because my friend wishes to remain anonymous, we shall heretofore refer to him only by the utterly ridiculous “Dr. Science,” or, if you’re into diminutions, the Doc. The subject of our our very first Ask Dr. Science! column is this New York Times article on a gene mutation tied to needing less sleep.

Researchers have found a genetic mutation in two people who need far less sleep than average, a discovery that might open the door to understanding human sleep patterns and lead to treatments for insomnia and other sleep disorders.

[…] Although the mutation has been identified in only two people, the power of the research stems from the fact that the shortened sleep effect was replicated in mouse and fruit-fly studies. As a result, the research now gives scientists a clearer sense of where to look for genetic traits linked to sleep patterns.

The lead researcher says her “fantasy” is that this might lead to a drug that can help people get by on less sleep without negative health consequences.

As someone who needs a full 8-hours or more of sleep per night (or copious amounts of caffeine) to feel decent, I have always regarded jealously those kind of people (in which category, unfortunately enough, all my boyfriends have always seemed to fall) who can get by on 5 or 6 hours of sleep per night. I seethe with envy at insomniacs. I pine for a safe upper stronger than coffee or red bull. I see my sleepiness as some sort of personal failure. And so: I am always interested in things that promise a possible end to this shameful shortcoming. Ah!, to cut my sleeping time in half! A girl can dream …

I sent the article to Dr. Science eagerly. He was not impressed.

First off, from a technical standpoint, how full of shit are the researchers here? And to what degree is this just hyping up a single study to justify continued funding for research? Nevermind the fact that the length of sleep people require is tied to far more than a single gene, the article states, “Although the mutation has been identified in only two people, the power of the research stems from the fact that the shortened sleep effect was replicated in mouse and fruit-fly studies.” Which begs the question,”How appropriate are fruit-flies and mice as models for studying the nature of sleep in humans?”

The article also has a quote from Dr. Fu,“When they wake up in morning, they feel they have slept enough,” Dr. Fu said. “They want to get up and do things. They arrange all their major tasks in their morning.” I hope the two women were subjected to more rigorous psychological testing than a couple of questions about their subjective state of feeling. How strong is their ability to consolidate memories after 6 hours of sleep? What about alertness, ability to concentrate, and willingness to exercise?

Anyway, I think it says something that at the end of the article that Dr. Fu chose the word “fantasy” to describe her hopes for the long-term outcome of this study.Namely, risk-free treatments for people who want to sleep less. I would like the article to have described exactly how the discovery will contribute to the development of such a technology. Skepticism about the actual significance of the discovery aside, the article glosses over the much more interesting question of “how much sleep do we actually need?” There was a related article about this in the same issue of Science. But it was (understandably so) restricted to a purely physiological discussion of the subject without any acknowledgment of how culture defines and influences what we consider to be the “appropriate” amount of sleep.

I admit, I glossed over his technical objections. But “how a culture defines and influences what we consider to be the appropriate amount of sleep?” How fascinating. I suppose I’ve never thought much about it before. What does Dr. Science know about different standards of sleep in different cultures, I wondered?

When I originally wrote that statement about cultural norms influencing sleep length I was in part thinking about how the adoption of certain technologies (in this case, artificial light, alarm clocks, and stimulants/sedatives) is itself a cultural practice. I did skim over a Wikipedia article that mentioned the “anthropology of sleep” before I wrote it just to make sure I wasn’t completely pulling something out of my ass, but it does appear that there is a small field of scholarship on this subject. Maybe its helpful to distinguish between an appropriate amount of sleep from a biological perspective from that of cultural expectation. So for instance, I think a neuroscientist would argue that the “appropriate amount of sleep” is the amount such that it doesn’t affect any of your cognitive faculties, alertness, attention span, and ability to engage in physical activity. But defining the optimum capacity for cognition, alertness, attention span, and ability to engage in physical activity is itself a social process. Although I would be willing to wager that most people feel more is better in each of those cases. So the questions becomes, at what point is enough enough? Where is the line between treating somebody with a disability and enhancing somebody who is already functioning at “normal” capacity? The baseline is dynamic and historically and culturally defined, so notions of treatment vs. enhancement are continuously being renegotiated by society.

I had to pause here and tell the doc about a play a friend of mine is writing, about a near-future society in which a test-batch of people begins on The Regimen, essentially a drug that only requires humans to get about an hour of sleep per day, or one full-night of sleep per week. He’s focusing on what this would do to not only work expectations, but how it would affect the relationship between a couple where one person is on the Regimen and the other isn’t. I love this kind of hypothetical stuff, and it also reminds me of the very-non-hypothetical debate over cognitive enhancement drugs.

But this is neither here nor there. Back to the Doc. He’s skeptical that Dr. Fu’s “fantasy” would be very good for society:

Let’s imagine for a moment that Dr. Fu was able to develop a risk-free treatment that allows people to comfortably rely on 6 hours of sleep a night without the use of an alarm clock to wake up and then function normally for the rest of the day. Why should we assume that would mean people would stop using stimulants and alarm clocks to further reduce the amount of sleep they need? So instead of going from an average of 8-8.5 hrs/night to 6 hrs, then let’s say people go from 6 to 3.5-4 hrs/night. How might that affect our culture? What would people do with all that time? Would businesses use it as an excuse to extend the work day by a couple more hours? How might it redefine what we refer to as “nightlife”?

And where in this chain of events in the development and deployment of such a sleep-reducing technology would people be given a choice about whether or not this is the type of society we want to live in? Or would we just sleep-walk (ok, maybe pun-intended) our way into this new world until it has become so entrenched that we can only attempt to create to a few modest regulations after the treatment has already become well established in the market and culture. How well has that approach worked for industrial agriculture and the way we eat food?

Anyway, it raises so many broad questions and I would just like to see science journalists raise a few of the issues rather than just congratulate the researchers. It looks like the author of the article only solicited one second opinion on the paper and it was from another physician doing sleep research. Why not ask a social scientist, an ethicist, or a historian about their thoughts on the subject? It’s a bit too important to simply leave it up to physical scientists to opine on the value of this research. So yeah, I’m not saying that a society where people only sleep 3.5-4 hrs/night would necessarily be a bad one to live in, but it warrants a broader debate than it will probably ever receive.

The sociology of science journalism! I hadn’t yet thought about that either. Sure, I publish “health discoveries” everyday on the Bulletin Web site, and wonder, vaguely and instinctively, what the point of reporting on these sort of things is, if it really creates any value, since findings seem to contradict each other and wind back and forth and get all twisty and bold and retracted every day or week or month. Oh, and I’ve read The Sociology of News, and I’ve thought about the way we cover press conferences and politics; I’ve wrote my graduate thesis on how we cover celebrities; I’ve pondered many times The Meaning of style-section articles … but I have never thought about the way we cover science. Or, if I have, it’s been with a vague assumption that science and health discovery reporting had to be kind of nebulous and shallow. Do you think the science journalism in the mainstream press in general is in a sorry state?, I asked Dr. Science.

Yeah, science journalism is definitely in trouble. Clearly not all journalists write these “gee-whiz, scientists discover X!” stories, but its pretty prevalent. Andrew Revkin at the NYTimes does a lot of good coverage of science. He has an interesting article on the phenomenon we’re talking about here with regard to slowly evolving research and contradictory results–what he refers to as the “whiplash effect.”

In it, Revkin writes:

When science is testing new ideas, the result is often a two-papers-forward-one-paper-back intellectual tussle among competing research teams.

When the work touches on issues that worry the public, affect the economy or polarize politics, the news media and advocates of all stripes dive in. Under nonstop scrutiny, conflicting findings can make news coverage veer from one extreme to another, resulting in a kind of journalistic whiplash for the public.

But with the current state of newspapers and journalism, can we really expect anything better?


Written by ENB

August 19, 2009 at 11:21 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m still looking for that magical formula too. Trying to write while being a five day a week wage-slave poses many interesting sleep dilemmas. I end up wasting large parts of my days off “catching up on sleep” sometimes, but I have to write late into the night at times too….I seem to need eight hours to feel right too, and end up resorting to energy drinks and the like quite often.

    Dan Mage

    August 26, 2009 at 12:18 am

  2. […] concede no opinions about ev-pscyh yet, but Dr. Science approves: That is quite possibly the best account of the topic I have ever read! She pretty much […]

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