Data Diaries: How data put me to sleep

For years, I took sleep for granted – especially in college. Between all-nighters studying for an upcoming exam and staying up late to hang out with my friends, I was constantly prioritizing other activities over sleep.

This worked out pretty well for me until my coursework picked up.

As a sophomore engineering student, I was neck deep in the most challenging period of my college career. I felt like there was not enough time in the day to finish everything I needed to do. So, as I always had done up to that point, I compromised sleep…because what college student didn’t do that? This approach worked at first. Then my health started to decline, and my grades followed soon after.

Even though I didn’t value my sleep at the time, I did value my grades and my health. So something had to change.

Around the same time, my younger sister, Haley Davis, started working with a psychology professor who specialized in… you guessed it… sleep! (She later co-authored a book with Dr. James B. Maas called Sleep to Win.) It might seem obvious that mental and physical performance are highly correlated with sleep, but I never realized how significant that linkage was until I looked at the stats.

Haley was quick to point out flaws in my “sleep less, work more” strategy. True to my engineering background, I was interested in the numbers.

It turns out that, according to Dr. Jan Born, University of Luebeck, Germany, people who sleep less than six hours each night lower their resistance to viral infection by 50 percent.

No wonder I was getting so sick. But what about my grades? It seemed counterintuitive to spend more time sleeping and less time studying.

Once again, Haley offered an explanation: Our brains transfer information from short-term to long-term memory while we sleep. Because REM is concentrated toward the end of our night’s sleep, by sleeping six hours instead of eight, we cut our total REM time nearly in half. To maximize transfer and retention, we have to sleep longer.

Based on her work with Professor Maas, Haley shared the results of a study conducted with high school students to measure how sleep can affect academic performance. Researchers paid students to work math problems on eight hours of sleep. Brain scans showed the appropriate areas lighting up as students answered the questions.

Image credit: Dr. James B. Maas

But, then the researchers asked the students to get just six hours of sleep. This time, the same students were getting the same math questions wrong! When researchers looked at their brains, they could clearly see the impact of sleep deprivation.

Image credit: Dr. James B. Maas

This was a scary thought. I could only imagine what my sophomore mid-finals brain would have looked like under such scans.

I was convinced! With the data to explain my groggy mental state, I had faith in the importance of sleep. As you can imagine, my schoolwork and my health immediately improved. Having this information really did change the way I function on a daily (and nightly) basis.

Data did that.


Close-up on Brittany:

Brittany Davis is a consultant on an IBM Marketing data and analytics team. With a background in applied statistics and quantitative modeling, she is passionate about using data and methods of optimization to improve everyday business decisions. Currently, Brittany is working with agile development teams to build data-driven applications.

Fun fact: Brittany is an avid SCUBA diver and has reached depths of up to 119 feet.

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