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“Humans actively ‘sacrifice’ sleep for other activities”

Interview with Vicki Culpin, Author of “The Business of Sleep”

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European Business: You stated that one-third of American adults are getting too little sleep with negative effects on body and health. Did you experience bad sleeping behaviour yourself in the past or why did you come up with the idea writing a book only about sleeping?

Vicki Culpin: I generally have very good sleep – both quality and quantity, and after spending over 15 years working on this topic, I certainly prioritise sleep a little more than I perhaps used to, but I have always been a good sleeper.

I became interested in the topic of sleep after being asked to get involved in a research project because of my expertise in a completely different topic – memory.  My PhD is on the topic of memory, and I was asked to work on a piece of research examining the beneficial effects of treating sleep apnoea.  Often, an effect of undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnoea is poor memory, and the project was looking to see whether memory improved in patients once they received treatment for their apnoea.  Whilst I was brought in to the project because of my expertise in memory, I quickly became very interested in the topic of sleep, and it all started from there!

European Business: For adults who are 26-64 years old, it is recommended to sleep 7 to 9 hours per night. How can people make sure they get this amount of sleep all of their working life?

Vicki Culpin: There are no ‘life hacks’ here – to make sure you are getting the right amount of sleep, and the right quality of sleep, you need, you often have to make choices, and prioritise sleep over other activities. A number of sleep researchers have said that if you are not getting enough sleep each night, then sleep should be prioritised over any other activity.

Vicki Culpin
To make sure you are getting the right amount of sleep, and the right quality of sleep, you need, you often have to make choices, and prioritise sleep over other activities. Vicki Culpin

European Business: You mentioned the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) in your book in which people are asked: ‘Just suppose a great fog were to fall over the earth and all we could see of people would be their feet. What would happen? How would this change life on earth? List as many ideas as you can.’ How does it show that sleep and creativity are linked together?

Vicki Culpin: It isn’t the test itself that shows the link between sleep and creativity, it is the correlation between performance on different aspects of the test, and the different stages of sleep.  The example you have given measures verbal creativity, and other aspects of the test measure visual creativity.  The test is also designed in a way that looks not just at creativity per se, but different aspects of the creative process such as fluency (how many creative answers you generate to a specific problem), flexibility (different types of answer), originality of the creative solution and finally elaboration (the building of one creative solution from the previous one). Research has found that different aspects of the creative process (as measured by the test) are related to different stages of sleep.  For example, fluency and flexibility have been shown to relate to light sleep – the more light sleep a person is found to have the night before, the more creative solutions they will generate.  Deep sleep has been shown to relate to originality, with the more deep sleep obtained the previous night correlating with an increase in the originality of the creative solution the next day.

The more light sleep a person is found to have the night before, the more creative solutions they will generate. Vicki Culpin
Vicki Culpin

European Business: You mentioned several studies in your book that have been carried out by researchers. Which would you recommend to managers or employees in leading positions and how can they profit in regard to their performance at work?

Vicki Culpin: I think it is less about recommending studies, and more about individuals being aware of the impact of poor quality and quantity of sleep on their physical and mental health, their emotional and social behaviours and their cognitive abilities.  We know that it takes a relatively short amount of time with poor sleep before cognitive skills key to success at work (such as memory, creativity, innovation, problem-solving, decision making and learning) are affected.  In addition, those key social and emotional skills such as management of mood, high level communication skills and emotional intelligence are also quickly affected with one or two nights of poor sleep or sleep deprivation.

Vicki Culpin
Some animals share some characteristics of the sleep process with humans, but so much is different. Vicki Culpin

European Business: Is there an animal that masters the art of sleep (and work) and could function as a role model for human beings?

Vicki Culpin: This is a very difficult question to answer, because some animals share some characteristics of the sleep process with humans, but so much is different.  I think, fundamentally, that as humans are the only species that actively ‘sacrifice’ sleep for other activities through choice this is the key – being aware of the choices you are making around your sleep, and if you are not getting the right amount, or it is not of the right quality, being mindful of those choices, and the impact they are potentially  having on your physical and mental well-being.

Interview: Vera Gaidies Photos: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

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