What is normal sleep? How much sleep is normal?
That is not an easy question, and if you read the scientific literature, even the top sleep scientists don’t really have an answer. The functional answer is: whatever works.
The consensus among the medical profession is fuzzy at best.
Some sleep researchers in Germany recently published a paper bemoaning their difficulty in finding normal sleepers to establish a baseline. While they had plenty of volunteers, most were excluded because of disorders. Some of the participants didn’t even know they had a disorder until they took a polysomnograph test as part of the study. Of course, the researchers had their own ideas of what constitutes a sleep disorder.
Can you learn to be a better sleeper? Yes. Self-awareness, self-inspection, and trial and errors are the keys. The quantified self movement is about watching your own body and behavior and making adjustments to improve. You can work on your own sleep by using a sleep log. Record bedtime and rising times, nighttime awakenings, notes on sleep quality, exercise, food, medicine consumption, and whatever you think is important.
You can also incorporate a sleep monitor for more information. Make adjustments and see what works for you.
Now many people think they can cheat sleep with tricks like polyphasic sleep, which almost never works. That's not to say it can never work, and a small minority of the population can pull it off, but most can't. Other people try to cheat sleep during the workweek and make up for it on the weekends. Indeed, a large fraction of the working population does this to some extent and ends up with a weekend nap. But a few people really try to push it and sleep only a few hours every night during the week. They are almost all fooling themselves. Ergonomics, military, and human factors experts have found in study after study that performance declines quickly after only a little sleep deprivation. You might be able to get away with it for a day or two, but not for a whole week.
It would be great if you could enhance the quality of sleep so that you could get the same benefits in a shorter time. Maybe if there were a way to ensure that you get all the stage 3 and 4 sleep and cut the less valuable stage 1 and 2 sleep. Indeed, this is the idea behind polyphasic sleep. If there were a way to ensure that the monophasic sleep period got all the required stage 3, stage 4, and REM sleep without all the less important light sleep, maybe we could cut back on total sleep time.
However, no such method has been found, or even hinted at. There is no drug or method of brain stimulation or body position or technique for bedroom management or clothing that makes sleep more efficient. Now there is such a thing as "sleep efficiency" that is a metric researchers measure – it's the time spent asleep divided by the total time in bed. And sometimes you will see a drug study results report tell how the drug affected the patients' sleep efficiency. But this is slightly different from what the ambitious sleep strivers are aiming for.
What would it mean to be a master sleeper? Other fields of human endeavor are ones which appreciate high skill and admire the best and the hardest workers. We speak of chess masters, of elite runners, or concert pianists. We acknowledge that while in-born talent is a factor in overall performance, so it practice and dedication. The chess master was born with a good ability to see patterns, but he or she learned top chess skills through thousands of games. The runner trains constantly. Many professions mandate continuing education for seasoned practitioners.
Why shouldn't we be able to become better sleepers? The ancient and defeatist notion that sleep is just something that happens to you – Sandman sprinkles dust in our eyes or the god of sleep Hypnos or Morpheus supernaturally enters our brains and switches the sleep switch to “on” - can't we get beyond that? By taking action, proactively preventing insomnia, and practicing best sleep practices, we may be able to become better sleepers.
The U.S. Government used to run a program to encourage kids to get enough sleep called “Star Sleeper”. It tried to make sleep cool and maybe relevant for kids. They have discontinued this program, but the idea remains relevant.
Why not co-opt this idea for adults – a Master Sleeper program to be held at community colleges and continuing education centers. A curriculum would cover lighting levels, beds, room temperature, regular bedtime and wake-up time, what to do if you wake up in the night, etc.
Powepoint file: Sleep: Mysterious and Fun