The early bird catches the crab….
As a dedicated cox of the St Peter’s women’s rowing squad, I regularly haul myself out of bed before the sun rises and spend the dawn avoiding altercations with other boats. “Don’t Drive Tired” is a mantra drummed into us all in television adverts and lit-up motorway signs, but what about “Don’t Cox Tired?” As my zippy women’s eight breezes through the water at full pelt, we are in constant danger of colliding with intrepid canoeists, long suffering canal-boat residents and the Green Bank foliage. Not forgetting, of course, the swans. Coxing is like voice-activated driving, except that the cox has no brake and is (generally speaking) a vertically challenged individual like myself, peering over the team to view the oncoming traffic.
So how do I stay alert during these perilous early morning outings? I begin with at least five or six alarms (I wish I was joking). This is quite a traumatic awakening, not helped by a caffeine shot of steaming black coffee. With all the grace of a dying diplodocus, I cycle sleepily over Donnington Bridge. At least the wind in my hair helps me wake up. The coach’s megaphone is the last step to full consciousness. After this early morning ritual, I bounce into breakfast and amaze everybody with how awake I am, at only eight thirty.
Unfortunately, my average bedtime is about 10pm.
Time swoops by for the night owl
Last night, I was up until four, watching rap diss clips on Youtube. I then worked and re-worked an summer internship application until it was so beautiful I could see my face in it. The night before that, I had a midnight snack that some would describe as “lunch”: lamb soup dipped with chunks of bread and cheese. Like the vampire Nosferatu, I am by nature nocturnal. I don’t sleep in a coffin, but I do worry about driving myself into one early. So do my parents, every time I go home and my room blazes with light until the early hours. “Martha!” they squeal, as the dawn chorus starts to chime. “You’re losing vital proteins! And getting dehydrated!” I don’t know quite where the proteins come from, but with huge bags under my eyes, feverish dreams about magic carpets (even in my dreams I am too tired to stay awake on them, so I fall asleep and slide off), I can see this is not a healthy lifestyle. I promise myself that I will be in bed before 2am.
But night time is when I get my best work done. I’m most creative then. There’s no one to distract me – even Facebook feels lonely at night. Walking past the Lodge at 4am – to see the night porters gently snoozing – gives me a Bernard’s Watch-type rush of power. Night is the time for planning: holidays and trips and creative projects spill from my brain in the wee hours, when the lack of a sun in the sky makes it seem that time has stopped.
The running joke on my staircase is that, whatever time of day it is, I look like I’ve just got up. More often than not, I just have.
I know my sleeping patterns aren’t exactly average. But for me, harnessing nightly bursts of energy really seems to get things done. Who wants vitamin D anyway?
I can’t get no sleep
Running on two hours of sleep is never fun, particularly in Oxford. But for those blighted with insomnia, there is little say in the matter. The insomniac must simply “keep calm and carry on”.
1. Use Benefit Erase Paste. Even for the make-up shy, this concealer with its almost supernatural qualities is unrivalled for removing under-eye shadows to rival Gollum’s.
2. Wear hats. It is possible to rest your eyes mid-seminar if you position yourself well enough, and shield your drooping lids with a reasonably sized brim. Every now and again. Emerge from behind your chosen headgear and look with concerned interest at the tutor.
3. DO NOT DRINK GALLONS OF COFFEE. No caffeinated drinks after 4pm – if you are in the habit of downing four Americanos post-dinner, you are suffering from idiocy, not insomnia.
Oxford’s top sleeping spots
OxStu contributors list the best places to catch 40 winks, some more comfortable than others…
1. All Soul’s lawn
2. A sub-fusc hammock
3. On the back of a deer on Magdalen Fields
4. An alcove in St John’s library
5. Port Meadow, to be woken up at 6am by rowers gliding past…
6. Four-poster room at the Randolph
7. College bathtubs
8. The toilets at Bridge nightclub
9. The Taylorian Hall (two tiered – so no lecturer need ever know…)
10. When home is too far away, the sofa in the JCR…
The historical view
16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne was renowned for his idiosyncratic approach to life. His essay ‘On Sleep’ might teach us all a thing or two….
“I have taken notice, as of an extraordinary thing, of some great men, who in the highest enterprises and most important affairs have kept themselves in so settled and serene a calm, as not at all to break their sleep. Alexander the Great, on the day assigned for that furious battle betwixt him and Darius, slept so profoundly and so long in the morning, that Parmenio was forced to enter his chamber, and coming to his bedside, to call him several times by his name, the time to go to fight compelling him so to do.”
The expert view
We asked DPhil student Kate Porcheret for her take on what constitutes “good sleep.”
Q: Have you found any links between sleep deprivation and social and emotional behaviour? Briefly, have you any explanations for them?
A: My DPhil project is currently addressing this question. We are starting to see some interesting results, but I’m afraid it is too early to say for sure what is going on. However there are some interesting things already known. As I’m sure you are aware when you don’t get enough sleep you get a worsening of mood. However, the opposite is true for a person who is clinically depressed. In this case one night of total sleep deprivation can cause an increase in mood. Currently there is no clear explanation for this.
Q: When, where, and how much are the optimums for sleeping? (in other words, the expert’s view on what constitutes a good night’s sleep!)
A: There are various guidelines for good sleep, often known as sleep hygiene. These include the obvious, like not having caffeine or alcohol etc. However an often overlooked aspect is the amount of light people receive at night. Light is a key signal to the body that it is daytime. Too much light at the wrong time of day can confuse the body and make it “wake up,” making it harder to get to sleep. This is all to do with the body’s circadian rhythms and its relationship to the external environment.
Q: Is it really true that adolescents need more sleep, and that young people are inclined to go to sleep and wake later?
A: Yes, this is true for most adolescents. The reason for this is due to chronotype. Chronotype is a person’s diurnal preference, which is basically when they ideally want to go to bed and get up. Our chronotype is something that changes with age, and we are at our latest (i.e. wanting to go to bed and get up late) in our late teens, early 20’s. After that we get progressively earlier. People can still be largely morning or evening types and still see this shift in preference.
Q: A lot is said about ensuring that the “quality” of one’s sleep is good. But what does “quality sleep” mean exactly?
A: Generally good sleep quality is defined as a short sleep latency (i.e. falling asleep quickly) and good sleep maintenance (i.e. staying asleep, once you have fallen asleep).
Q: Why is it that some people seem to be able to cope on four hours a night, whilst others need eight or nine? And can you sleep too much?
A: Certainly some people are short sleepers while others need longer. Also it is possible to sleep too much. Hypersomnia (sleeping too much) is a symptom of depression and has been associated with obesity.
Interview: Lizzie Porter