The Ravel’d Sleave of Care
I slept in. This is not an apology for that – I really needed the sleep for a variety of reasons. Sleep is important, and while sleeping too much can get you a stigma of being lazy, sleeping too little can actually make you crazy. Studies also show ¹that while the detrimental effects of lack of sleep are generally known, the worst thing you can do to yourself is to have partial sleep loss – long term sleep deprivation you can actually adjust to and cope with, although you will certainly see an impact to your motor skills, mood and thinking ability. But interrupted sleep takes that and makes it three times worse (and those are numbers from the meta analysis I linked above.) Yes, coffee does actually help², although according to that study, not necessarily as quickly nor as long as people seem to assume. Ninety minutes until the caffeine in serum peaks, and 12 hours until it’s gone. But eventually psychoactive legal drugs aren’t going to help (writes the author after having taken a long sip of her hot coffee). Your mood, your performance, and your motor skills are going to be shot until you can get adequate rest. And if you’re sick, you need more sleep than normal.
Understanding the effects of the lack of sleep on the human psyche can not only help the writers among us live more rested and productive lives, but can help us model and mold realistic characters. Under the influence of sleeplessness, a normally smart person can make profoundly stupid decisions. For one thing, sleep deprivation affects our ability to think creatively – the ability to make ‘rules based’ decisions seems to be uninhibited³, but emotion is harder to control and can lead to some very peculiar and out of character actions. Sleep deprivation doesn’t necessarily affect the physiology of the sleepless person4, but their work performance is nonetheless impacted. For an author’s purpose, this means that pressure can be built up on our heroes simply by depriving them of sleep – especially sleep that allows them the deep and continuous rest their brains need. There are a number of ways this can easily and naturally be written into a story. I myself have dealt with the effects and can, ruefully, imbue them with all my own experience of having been a young mother who rarely got more than a few hours at a time… There were other experiences, but I suspect all of us can name a time when we weren’t sleeping well, and as a result made stupid decisions.
Other than coffee (or mocha, my preferred vehicle of maximal caffeine intake), there are other ways to try and combat sleepiness when one cannot fall asleep or Bad Things Happen. Turning on the lights, exercising… but they only work well during the normal wakeful hours5 of your circadian rhythm. For most of us, that’s during the day, although humans can certainly adapt to night shift work. However, with that adaptation is associated more health risks6, and the worst kind of sleep disturbance comes with people who have to work on moving shifts – sometimes day, sometimes night, sometimes both… like nurses. It adds up, and takes a toll. More accidents, poorer overall health, decreased alertness and cognition…
There’s a reason I wanted to sleep in. Sleep also allows the body down time to heal. Despite the fact that in the last couple of years I can look back and see that I am healthier now than I was a decade ago, by far, I still know that I’m older and will heal more slowly. But it did get me thinking about writing characters who are human: we get sick. Even if you are writing a super-advanced science fiction, it is highly unlikely to have conquered all disease. Pathogens are a slippery lot. Look, the cold virus mutates at the drop of a hat. Bernadette Durbin made me giggle the other day talking about drawing up a cartoon of the flu virus showing up at a human’s door in halloween costumes every year, and the human’s immune system lets them in, because it’s dumb and a sucker for hats and false mustaches. Which isn’t quite how it works, but close enough to make me laugh. And that spaceship crew who is immunized against all the big known diseases, with loads of antibodies… isn’t going to be any smarter. Most of us here have complained about con crud. How about planetary leave crud? Or what happens when that partial sleep deprivation we discussed above depresses your immune system7 enough for you to catch a germ you wouldn’t normally be affected by? I suddenly have a vision of a spaceship that is undermanned, has been on high alert, and an opportunistic pathogen takes hold… As an author, this is fun. As a person, it’s all too true and part of life, so I sleep responsibly.
So there’s another tool in your writer’s workbox. Yet another way to torture your main characters and influence them in ways they are probably unconscious of. Or have a spaceship’s doctor become the hero by advocation of sufficient sleep to knit up the crew. Or a way to show your villain in a murder mystery slowly falling apart because he can no longer sleep and his psycopathic wife is nagging him into madness. You know what to do.