How does sleep affect your everyday life and the people around you? Join Alanna Dorsey (Stanford University '23) and Sophia Zheng (Princeton University '23) as they dive into the often-overlooked impacts of the current sleep epidemic on college campuses and research on how sleep impacts socialization, police stops, social justice, and more!
Casual Chatting about:
Have you been concerned about your sleep?
Sleep epidemic on college campuses
Not getting enough sleep, wishing I could sleep better
Alanna: Hello and welcome to the Insight Spark Podcast! In this episode, we’ll dive into Sleep and Society, the unseen impacts sleep has in our everyday lives.
Sophia: Yes, let’s jump right in! Why don’t we introduce ourselves to our listeners and share how we got interested in the study of sleep?
Alanna: I’m Alanna, a sophomore at Stanford majoring in Human Biology. I worked in a sleep lab at Stanford, where I studied the neuroscience behind sleep.
Sophia: I’m Sophia, I’m a sophomore and research assistant at Princeton, where I study economics and politics research. As somebody who could probably benefit from more sleep, I am really interested in your research you have done about sleep.
Alanna: That’s so cool, thanks for joining me today as we talk a bit more about sleep.
Sophia: No problem! I think it’s awesome that you worked in a sleep lab. That must have been so interesting! Is there anything cool you learned about sleep?
Alanna: Sure! I mostly learned neurobiology, specifically the neural circuits that govern sleep and wakefulness. But in my research, I came across a few interesting papers that connected sleep to broad social issues. I found that sleep plays a role in some of the most important issues we’ve faced in the past year, such as the pandemic, loneliness, and impacts of police violence.
Sophia: Wow! Sleep is so important to everybody’s lives. To be honest, I need to really work on my sleep. What did those papers talk about?
Alanna: Of course. First let’s start with the most obvious ways that sleep influences society: health. We all know that sleep is important for our general health, but did you know it also determines how well vaccines work?
Sophia: Seriously? I knew that sleep is important for the immune system, but it’d never really thought about how it impacted vaccines.
Alanna: Yep, sleep plays a crucial role in the vaccine process. Sleep creates a unique hormonal environment in the body that promotes the growth of lymphocytes, a white blood cell that produces antibodies to create immunity against viruses and bacteria. So getting ideal amounts of sleep allows vaccines to create the greatest amount of antibodies possible, thus making you immune to disease.
Sophia: What I’m hearing is that sleep helps vaccines do their job. What happens if you don’t get enough sleep?
Alanna: Your immunity takes a toll. Scientists found that when they deprived participants of sleep on the first night after their influenza or hepatitis A vaccine, the participants had less than half of the normal antibody amount 10 days later. And this was after just one night of partial sleep loss!
Sophia: So if you don’t sleep enough, vaccines won’t work as well?
Alanna: Exactly! Sleep deprivation weakens the immune response, so white blood cells can’t create as many antibodies to fight off disease.
Sophia: Woah, that’s big. Especially in our sleep-deprived society, the impact of sleep on vaccine efficacy could play an insidious role in how quickly we recover from COVID-19.
Alanna: Exactly. That’s why it’s so important to get a good night’s rest after your COVID-19 vaccine.
Social jet lag and academic performance
Sophia: Besides health, did you discover any other ways that sleep impacts my daily life? I’m a college student, so I’m curious if there are any ways it impacts school.
Alanna: There definitely are. For one, social jet lag stunts academic performance.
Sophia: Hmm, that’s an interesting term. What’s social jet lag?
Alanna: SJL is the mismatch between someone’s circadian rhythms and their socially-imposed schedule. Your circadian rhythms are your innate, personalized preferences for when to sleep. Some people are morning larks and naturally feel alert at 5 am, while others are night owls and stay up late at night. Your socially-imposed schedule is all about your social commitment and what society expects of you. This could be work, attending class, or hanging out with friends. Especially for night owls who sleep late but have early morning classes, this disconnect between biological and social schedules creates a constant feeling of exhaustion. That’s social jet lag.
Sophia: What happens when people experience greater levels of social jet lag?
Alanna: Your grades suffer. The more SJL you experience, the lower your GPA. Night owls who have early morning classes are the worst off, because their internal schedules hardly ever match up with their actual schedules. As a result, they feel fatigued all the time, making it impossible for them to concentrate in class and do their best.
Sophia: [Sounds like me…] So social jet lag takes a serious toll on your academic performance. What can students do about this?
Alanna: The sad thing is, a lot of the problem surrounding SJL is out of the hands of students, even though they’re the ones who are most affected by it. K-12 schools have early start times, and colleges host a majority of their classes in the morning or early afternoon. So the most changes must come from school administrators and college deans, who need to push for later start times to accommodate for the spectrum of circadian rhythms in their students.
Sophia: You also mentioned that the social schedule includes hanging out with friends. So maybe students can be more mindful of when they schedule times with friends or family, because they might have more control over this than school times.
Alanna: Yes, that’s a great point! Speaking of socializing, sleep has also been implicated in how we interact with others.
Sophia: Oh really? How so?
Loneliness + social withdrawal
Alanna: Well, that leads us to our next topic. As it turns out, sleep deprivation makes people socially withdraw more.
Sophia: How do you know that?
Alanna: A group of scientists compared participants who were sleep-deprived to people who were well-rested. In the social distance test, sleep-deprived people maintained more distance from others approaching them.
Sophia: And why does this happen? How does sleep connect to social behavior?
Alanna: We don’t have all the puzzle pieces figured out, but this socially aversive behavior has been connected to changes in the brain. fMRI scans revealed that people with sleep loss showed lower activity in the brain region associated with social interactions and understanding the intentions of others. At the same time, these participants had heightened activity in the brain regions that warns of approaching intruders. This combination of not understanding why other people are approaching and being more sensitive to potential threats makes people socially withdraw.
Sophia: So what I’m hearing is that sleep deprivation is connected to changes in the brain that make people avoid others. What happens after that? Or is that the end of the story?
Alanna: There’s more to it. After sleep-deprived individuals seclude themselves, other people perceive them as lonely and don’t want to interact with them.
Sophia: So these internal changes in sleep and brain activity can lead to external changes in how people perceive you.
Alanna: Exactly! The troubling thing is, this creates a vicious cycle of isolation. Someone doesn’t sleep enough, they withdraw from others, other people see them as lonely and don’t interact with them as much, and the anxiety from social isolation makes it even harder to sleep.
Sophia: Wow, I had no idea that sleep is so interconnected with mental health in so many ways. Are there any other connections with mental health?
Police stops, mental health
Alanna: Definitely. Sleep is also related to mental health surrounding police stops.
Sophia: So sleep even plays a role in social justice?
Alanna: Yep. One study by researchers showed that the impacts of police stops on adolescents is even more pervasive than we thought.
Sophia: And what did they find?
Alanna: Overall, police stops were associated with poorer sleep quality in adolescents. Kids who were directly stopped by the police were at greater risk of having trouble sleeping, especially if they were stopped multiple times. Even vicarious exposure (which is knowing about or seeing someone in your neighborhood be stopped by the police) was associated with lower sleep quality.
Sophia: You mentioned that getting stopped multiple times made it more likely that adolescents would have trouble sleeping. Are there any other factors that make the negative effects of police stops worse?
Alanna: Absolutely. Young adults and kids who experienced a greater level of intrusion (which includes frisking, harsh language, or threat of force or violence by the police) had even worse sleep.
Sophia: What about mental health? Was this tied to sleep problems?
Alanna: Yes, the researchers found poorer sleep was tied to the social stigma and post-traumatic stress from being stopped by officers. Police stops worsen anxiety because minors are helpless against officers, which makes adolescents worry about the next time they’ll feel powerless over their safety.
Sophia: Wow, you were right when you said that police stops have widespread impacts on people and their communities. I also think this is a really important conversation in the current socio political environment as well.
Alanna: Yeah, and I really hope that this study will be used to inform policy decisions about public health and law enforcement. In response to findings like this, law enforcement agencies should develop new practices that minimize the trauma they inflict on others. Black participants in this study were more likely to be stopped by the police, highlighting the need for training that reduces racial bias. This is a call to action to stop dismissing the long-reaching impacts of everyday encounters, and to reshape practices that are deep-rooted in inequality.
Sophia: Yep, that’s why it’s so important to raise awareness about studies like these, which use science and research-based tools to highlight social issues and clarify how we should approach them.
Alanna: Great point! Well, now that we’re at the end of our podcast, I wanted to thank you again for joining me. Sophia, did you learn anything new today? Can you wrap up what we were chatting about?
Sophia: Definitely! I learned that sleep is important for so many aspects of our lives: our physical health, mental health, grades, and even in how we interact with others. Now I’m curious about the widespread impacts that sleep deprivation can have on our society and, on the other hand, how societal issues can disrupt sleep.
Alanna: I’m glad you found this interesting. I make a point to educate others about sleep, because it really is a public health and social justice issue. Sleep is not just something that people are supposed to do for a third of their lives. It’s a currency that separates the rich and the poor, the privileged and the marginalized. Making reforms such as shifting school times and reevaluating police training can improve sleep quality and advocate for the equity of all.
Sophia: Yeah, I think that’s really important to keep in mind and I think it is crucial to highlight such research on sleep which impacts our lives.
Alanna: For sure. And with that, thanks again to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll catch you next time on the Insight Spark Podcast!
Last Fact Checked on May 22nd, 2021.