Johnson and Trump think sleeplessness makes them unique and uniquely powerful, says Terry Prone.
IT WAS meant as a claim to virtue, but might also be an unintended declaration of self-harm. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says that he doesn’t need much sleep.
“I work non-stop,” he told the The Sunday Times interviewer. “Unless I specifically tell you otherwise, I’m working. I burn the candle at both ends.”
Such a hero. Such quintessential commitment. Such a sweet remembrance of the lovely lines written by American poet Edna St Vincent Millay:
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light.
It all fits Boris so well and so flatteringly, given that no man has ever, other, perhaps, than US President Donald Trump, so basked in the lovely light of public approval.
And The Donald is another exemplar of working constantly and cutting back on the old shut-eye. Never mind what, precisely, constitutes the definition of work in either case.
The Boris probably thinks domestic incidents over the use of a computer represent diligence, and we know the US president makes with the muscular thumb, sometimes in the middle of the night, to tweet the products of his latest scrutiny of Fox News.
The issue is not the definition of work. The issue is forgoing sleep. Neither man believes he needs as much of it as do the rest of us, and they share this belief with former world leaders Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
(Each of whom, by the way, had their final decade consumed by Alzheimer’s).
While it would be inappropriate to make a direct cause-and-effect link, because the research is not yet probative, one neuroscientist, Matthew Walker, says he has “always found it curious that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan — two heads of state that were very vocal, if not proud, about sleeping only four to five hours a night — went on to develop the ruthless disease.
The current US president, Donald Trump — also a vociferous proclaimer of sleeping just a few hours each night — may want to take note.”
Two chances — slim and none — that either The Boris or The Donald will take note. As far as they’re concerned, sleeplessness is just one of the factors that renders them unique — and uniquely powerful.
They’re ahead of the masses, except perhaps in being overweight, which they share with the millions throughout the world who are sleep-deprived.
Frequently because of shift work, people who don’t sleep much have extra eating time and a greater desire for sugary fuel, plus caffeine.
Which is not a good thing, because it makes them fat or even obese and points them in the direction of type 2 diabetes.
It’s unclear where, in this daisy chain of sleep loss and obesity, fits the statistic about getting cancer, but the WHO sees a sufficient connection to label shift work a carcinogen, and it is safe to predict that in the near future, cancer-suffering former shift workers will sue those who employed them to work hours known (at the time, meaning right now) to profoundly endanger their health.
Sleeping an adequate number of hours a night does not, in our time, confer any perceived virtue. Nobody boasts of getting nine uninterrupted hours a night without pharmaceutical assistance.
Those sleepers know only too well that, were they to announce their healthy sleep pattern, the response would be, “Aren’t you lucky?”, articulated with a mixture of envy (“God, that must be mighty”) and contempt.
(“Yeah, well some of us are too hard-working, energetic, dynamic, upwardly mobile, and generally sensitive to sleep like a slug”.)
Extraordinary, this deeply ingrained notion that those who sleep easily and at length are not ideal for employment, particularly not in challenging posts.
In medicine, it goes back to the guy who essentially set the rules for the training of medics, those rules heavily dependent on long hours spent making decisions crucial to the lives of patients.
This was the founder of the surgical training programme at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, William Steward Halsted, MD.
Halsted was the one who believed medical students should live in the hospital, so as to be permanently and constantly on call.
Working 30 or more hours straight without the relief of sleep would help these young lads shape up to become the brilliant surgeons of the future, as would Halsted’s own habit of losing interest halfway through a major operation.
He would hand the whole kit and caboodle over to the students to finalise, unsupervised by him, for the good reason that he was deep in the ecstasy of a cocaine fix. Halsted, towards the end of his illustrious career, was addicted not just to cocaine, but to morphine, which was a failsafe way of coming down off a coke high.
His students didn’t, for the most part, rely on either. Nor did the generations of medical students who followed during the nearly century and a half intervening between our time and his, but they were, nonetheless, inheritors of the grievously false idea that exhaustion is good for you and that the scholarly equivalent of a good hazing makes you a better doctor.
Matthew Walker, whose book Why We Sleep examines and correlates a vast corpus of international research into sleep, maintains that:
Unethical? Yes. Someone who hasn’t had enough sleep has difficulty reading external factors and responding as they would and should. Hence, the RSA signpost that bluntly says, ‘Tiredness Kills.’
IF, BY the way, you are coming into this Monday well-slept, because of what might be called the clever yuppie approach to sleep-deprivation, you may find one of Matthew’s points upsetting. Or, rather, two of them.
First of all, let’s identify the clever yuppie approach.
It goes this way: The victim gets between four and six hours a night throughout the week, because of the demands of their job or their social life or their babies, or all three.
The victim consoles themself, throughout the week, with the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel of a weekend sleep-in, guaranteed by the ingestion of Ambien.
And returns to work at the beginning of the following week with the conviction that they are refreshed and ready to go again. Not so, says Walker.
“Sleep is not like a credit card system or a bank,” he writes. “The brain can never recover all the sleep it has been deprived of. We cannot accumulate a sleep debt without penalty, nor can we repay that sleep debt at a later time.”
That sleep debt will, according to the overwhelming bulk of the research into sleeplessness, radically and measurably shorten and disimprove your life. Burn the candles at both ends? Maybe not..