May 5, 2006

The Sun Speaks With Prof. James Maas

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It’s that time of the year again – finals time – where Cornell students pack the libraries at night, cramming four month’s worth of material into a one-night crammathon.

Books? Check.

Pens and highlighters? Check.

Six-pack of Red Bull? Check.

Sound familiar?

It does to Prof. James Maas, psychology, star professor of Psychology 101, who has been lecturing Cornell students for 42 years on the importance of a good night’s sleep.

Maas, whose book Power Sleep topped charts several years ago, sat down with The Sun earlier this week to talk about sleep, retirement and his new book Power Life.

The Sun: Okay, Professor Maas, tell us what’s so great about sleep.

James Maas: It’s interesting, because people are so concerned these days about nutrition and exercise in terms of the quality of their life. They watch so carefully what they eat, and everybody these days is conscious of exercise as being key to looking good and being healthy, but nobody really thinks very much about sleep. They all think sleep is a luxury.

That is very, very stupid thinking because any cognitive effort after 16 hours of alertness is really wasted. If you look at the brain’s ability to assimilate, organize, reorganize and retain new information, it’s almost zero after that amount of time.

So it would be much better for someone to get as much sleep as they can, then study the next day because in terms of their effectiveness and their efficiency, they will do so much better, get so much more done, retain so much more, have insights, have all sorts of ‘aha!’ experiences that they would never get just trying to memorize stuff that they’d be lucky enough to be alert enough to throw it back the next day, much less manipulate it and be clever, creative and critical in their thinking.

The Sun: How much sleep are Cornell students getting?

JM: On average, Cornell students get, just like Stanford students – we’ve done the research at both places – about 6.1 hours a night, a little bit more on the weekends.

The Sun: And how much do they need?

JM: From puberty up until age 25 or so, the need for sleep to be fully alert all day long is 9.25 hours a night, so that’s a three-hour deficit every night. And that’s cumulative, so if you cut yourself short one hour seven nights in a row, by the end of the seventh day, you will have done the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter. So it’s not just what you did last night, but what you’ve accumulated all during the past week that’s going to add up and put your sleep-debt bank account into arrears.

The Sun: In Power Sleep, you talk about your four ‘golden rules of sleep.’ What are they?

JM: Rule #1 is that you should determine your own sleep need and meet it every night. And you’re fooling yourself if you say, ‘all I need is six,’ or ‘all I need is seven,’ or ‘I’m so damn busy and I’ve got so much work that I can’t get more than that.’ You can if you discipline yourself. So, meet your sleep need every night and don’t vary by more than an hour on the weekends.

But rule #2 is as important as #1, and that’s to establish a regular sleep-wake schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, Monday through Monday, including the weekends, because you have one biological clock, not one for classes and one for the weekends.

We’ve done research showing that if you take two groups of students and have them both get an equal number of hours of sleep, but group 1 goes to bed on what we call a “yoyo schedule” – they can go to bed at 11 p.m. one night and 3 a.m. the next – and group 2 goes to sleep at the same time every night, group 2 will be significantly more alert than group 1.

So even if you can’t get nine hours, but you get seven on a regular schedule, you’ll be much better off than a person who gets eight on a yoyo schedule.

The Sun: What do you have to say about that Neverlate alarm clock, developed by Adam Hocherman ’97, that allows you to set a different wake-up time every night of the week?

JM: It violates the rules, and I’ve told Adam, who’s a friend of mine and a former student, that the notion of that clock actually does harm, although I told him that I would endorse it if people didn’t vary more than an hour every night. And he bought that, and I said that in the instructions on the next production run, he should have a booklet that tells you the importance of power-napping, the importance of regularity and not to go more than one hour in either direction in terms of variability.

The Sun: Would you recommend that students structure their class schedules so that their first classes start around the same time every day?

JM: Well, if classes you want to take are taught, say, some days at 9 and others at 11, go ahead and take the 9, but get up the same time even on the days when your classes start at 11 and use that two hours to study or get some exercise, or both.

Students say to me, ‘you know what it would take me to be more disciplined about my sleep?,’ and I say, ‘what, is it a better sex life?,’ and they say, ‘the only thing that can convince me is if you can prove that if I get more sleep, my GPA will go up.’ And we have the proof now. We’ve done studies that show that kids who get A’s at Cornell get significantly more sleep than kids who are getting low C’s and D’s.

We know that you are going to be significantly more alert, significantly more productive, more creative, have greater critical-thinking ability when you get at least another hour more than what you’re getting now. And that does translate into performance.

The Sun: Let’s talk about some more specific topics you address in your book. You mention a pretty shocking statistic regarding sleep deprivation and alcohol.

JM: One drink on six hours of sleep, in terms of your ability to drive a car, is the equivalent of six drinks on eight hours, so you never want to get into a car with someone who’s the least bit sleepy and has had any alcohol to drink at all.

The Sun: How about sleep deprivation and obesity?

JM: Huge correlation. Leptin levels go down in the brain, grehlin levels go up in the stomach – those are the ying and the yang of hunger. So if you sleep as the typical college student does, you’re going to wake up starving for junk food, and you’re going to get fat. And that’s why we have this onset of Type II early-onset Diabetes in kids because they’ve gotten fat because they’re not sleeping. And even a lot of world-class nutritionists will talk about the “freshman fifteen” and not talk about the lack of sleep as a factor. It’s my hypothesis that if you increase freshman sleep, you will see those 15 pounds disappear.

The Sun: We talked about rules 1 and 2. What are 3 and 4?

JM: Rule #3 is to get continuous sleep. That means one block of undisturbed sleep. Rule #4 is to make up for lost sleep. The way to catch up is to power-nap but to keep those naps to 20 minutes or so because any more than that will affect your ability to fall asleep that night.

Interestingly enough, there’s fairly recent research showing that if you take the teenage brain as it is, in terms of circadian rhythms and growth hormones and everything else, probably the ideal time for a teenage and college students to go to bed is three in the morning but to get up at 11 in the morning.

The Sun: How can society accommodate that biological reality?

JM: Number one – and we’re working very hard on this, and we’ve finally gotten it changed in Ithaca for next fall – is that high schools need to start later. And Duke has it right – they’ve cut out all eight o’clock classes. I think in the ideal Cornell world, classes would start at ten in the morning.

The Sun: What advice do you have to students who have trouble getting to sleep at night?

JM: Number one: Nobody this age should expect to fall sleep before 11:30 or midnight because the adolescent brain is set up not to start secreting melatonin before then. Cut out coffee after two in the afternoon. Another thing is to get plenty of exercise, but not within three hours of bedtime. Maybe the most important one is to take a really hot shower because if you raise your body temperature right before bedtime, then the process of cooling down is something that can bring on good sleep.

The Sun: You’ve taught Psych 101 for 42 years now, and you’ve mentioned that you plan to retire soon. Have a particular year in mind?

JM: Nope. I’m taking it year by year right now. We are moving back to Bailey Hall in the fall, and we have 790 upperclassmen pre-registered, so we’ll be full at 1320, which is what they hold over there.

The Sun: You’re working on a new book, Power Life. When’s it coming out?

JM: That book is going to the publishers in about four weeks. Power Life should be in the Campus Store by Christmas Time or shortly thereafter.

The Sun: And it goes beyond sleep?

JM: Sleep is one of 12 chapters. It goes into nutrition and exercise, goal setting, time management, beliefs and values and attitudes and attitude change, spirituality, finances – all the little things we know from psychology that we know can improve your life. And it’s an airport read. You can read it in a few hours. It covers all the things you should’ve maybe learned in college but nobody bothered to tell you because they thought it was too applied. That’s one of the things I want to do with Psych 101 in the fall.

As I get closer to retirement, I realize how much there is to say to help you in your life. I’ve had more than 65,000 students by now, and I still get calls and e-mails every single day from kids I don’t know. I get mostly questions about sleep because I talk about sleep a lot, but I’ve begun to realize how many things, whether in perception or mental illness, that we have to say, that we should be saying. The theories are important, but there’s so much that will help people in their lives, so next year I’m really going to focus on telling the kids in 101 that you’re really going to be able to use this information.

That way, I’ll at least be able to say that I’ve told you what my field has to tell you about how to improve your life.

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Senior Writer