Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep, and kids have to get even more, though needs do vary from person to person. Some incredibly rare people can actually get by on a few hours of sleep per night, while others on the opposite end of the spectrum are sometimes called “long sleepers” because they need 11 hours nightly, as previously noted. Here Claire Maldarelli, Popular Science, republished by GetPocket.com, reflects on how many hours of sleep you really need:
“Sleep is a time suck. If you multiplied the average recommended number of hours we should sleep in a day—eight for a typical adult—by the number of days in an average lifespan (78.8 years in the United States), that would amount to about 9,587.3 days. That’s one third of your life spent unconscious. From an evolutionary standpoint, sleep is quite literally a waste of your time, yet it’s fought its way through countless years of adaptation in nearly every living animal on Earth. So it must be important, right?
In fact, researchers have found that sleep plays a vital role in the functioning of nearly every organ system in the body. At the same time, medical conditions, a busy schedule, and even the simple unavoidable act of aging constantly challenge the number of hours we allow ourselves. But that begs the question: how much sleep do we actually need? And can we train ourselves to need less?
First, let's talk about that eight hour figure that gets tossed around. It’s far from some arbitrary number. It's truly the number of hours we naturally crave, and there are two pretty strong pieces of evidence for it. In a series of experiments, researchers took study participants into a laboratory with no sunlight or other visual cues and, at night, gave them a non-negotiable, nine-hour-long opportunity to sleep. They did this each night for a number of weeks, and the results were always the same: even when provided with more time, humans will typically spend an average of eight hours catching up on their Zzz.
And that wasn't the only study to support the eight-hour sleep schedule. Back in 1938, a sleep researcher named Nathaniel Kleitman and one of his students spent 32 days living in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, one of the longest and deepest caves in the world—an environment completely void of sunlight. When they analyzed their sleep patterns, they found that they, too, slept about eight to eight and a half hours per night.
But what happens when we deprive ourselves, as many Americans do, of all or some of these recommended hours? It turns out, a lot. In 2003, David Dinges and Gregory Belenky, both sleep researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Walter Reed Army Research Institute, performed some of the most pivotal studies on the consequences of sleep deprivation thus far. Their goal was to figure out how little sleep a person could get away with, without having it affect their cognitive performance.
The two studies involved two-week-long experiments where researchers deprived participants of varying hours of sleep. Before they did so, they first allowed subjects to receive eight hours of sleep, followed by a series of cognitive tests the next day—which measured things like someone’s speed of response, how well they could interpret a written passage, and the number of times they dozed off for a second or two (what science calls a microsleep). All of this gave them a baseline for each subject's normal cognitive performance.”
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