Bill Clinton once said America would be a lot better off if our leaders slept more.
Reprinted with permission from Alternet.org
[Note: Sleep-deprived people sometimes have a more permeable boundary between the conscious and the unconscious states, such that the nightmarish imagery most of us have only in deep sleep, they might experience as waking reality. This could be dangerous, especially if that person wields great power. Healthy people sometimes have a mild, non-pathological experience of this state while, say, reading a book in bed late at night and starting to hear soft voices from the encroaching unconscious. Is Trump a pathological case? [Editor, Sierra Voices]].
By Larry Schwartz
President-elect Donald J. Trump regularly boasts he’s the biggest winner, makes the biggest deals, and appoints the best people, and recently he claimed he’ll be the biggest job creator god ever created. He also brags that he does all these amazing things on next to no sleep. This 70-year-old pre-adolescent made numerous boasts on the campaign trail last year about his sleeping habits, saying he sometimes gets as little as an hour’s sleep a night. Most nights, Trump says he gets by on just three or four hours of sleep, which is half of the amount sleep experts recommend. “I have a great temperament for success,” he told the Chicago Tribune at an event in Illinois last November. “You know, I’m not a big sleeper, I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.”
Some evidence of the rare truth of this particular brag is evident in the tweets he churns out, many with time signatures in the wee hours. In one case, after a GOP election debate moderated by Megyn Kelly, he tweeted out 30 messages between 2:30 and 4:30am, according to the Washington Post. Daniel Barron, a Yale University neurologist, even gives Trump’s nocturnal habit a name: Trump syndrome. The symptoms are, “a ravenous late-night craving for stimulation that results in a sometimes sporadic, often slender sleep schedule.”
Of course, Trump is not alone in being sleep-deprived. A report prepared by the Centers for Disease Control, based on the responses of nearly 75,000 people, found that 35 percent of them got less than the optimal seven hours of sleep a night, almost 30 percent got less than six hours and an astounding 38 percent reported that they unintentionally fell asleep during the day at least once in the past month. Only a tiny percentage, about 1 to 3 percent of all people, known as “short sleepers,” get by just fine on very few hours of sleep, with little health or cognitive consequence while awake.
The evidence might suggest, however, that Trump is no short sleeper, and the consequences of his sleeplessness are grave. Sleep deprivation has many symptoms, and the president-elect displays most of them. Sleep-deprived individuals, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, are impulsive, have difficulty adapting to new situations, are snappish, exhibit poor judgment, have trouble listening to and processing information, experience a lack of concentration and focus, are prone to imagining things, and get distracted easily. The sleep-deprived’s ability to learn new information can drop by up to 40 percent. Moreover, the lack of sufficient REM sleep can lead to the inability to recognize happiness or sadness in others—in other words, a lack of empathy. Sound familiar? That’s not all. A study in 2013 found that a lack of sleep results in increased activity in the part of the brain that prefers junk food over healthy foods, a description that fits the Big Mac-loving Trump. “The Quarter Pounder. It’s great stuff,” he once told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
There is also the fact that boasting about not sleeping is puerile in the extreme and potentially dangerously irresponsible. “Being able to hold your liquor and still drive used to be cool, but that’s not a badge of honor anymore,” sleep researcher Orfeu Buxton of Penn State University told Science of Us. “We’re still talking about how it makes you tougher if you sleep less. Drowsy driving is just as bad as drunk driving, and that cultural shift is lagging behind drinking and driving by a few decades.”
Steven Feinsilver of the Center for Sleep Medicine told Live Science, “Clearly, your brain doesn’t work very well when you’re sleep deprived,” and former President Bill Clinton would agree. Clinton told CNN most of the missteps he made throughout his career resulted from being tired. And he told Jon Stewart on the “Daily Show,” “Sleep deprivation has a lot to do with some of the edginess of Washington today,” and that “America would work better” if its political leaders got more sleep.
Meanwhile, one in six fatal car crashes is related to sleep deprivation, as are over 200,000 accidents at work. And some of the world’s worst disasters can be traced back to lack of sleep. Will our next president be at the helm of the next disaster? No doubt much of America will not sleep easier now that the man with the nuclear codes is the sleep-challenged Trump.
Here are six of the worst disasters sleep deprivation has wrought.
1. Exxon Valdez
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on a reef in Alaska. The result was America’s second-largest oil spill. The backstory revealed that there had been layoffs of some of the crew, and other crew members were working extended shifts of 12-14 hours. The third mate, Gregory Cousins, allegedly fell asleep at the wheel. Over 11 million gallons of oil fouled the formerly pristine Prince William Sound, killing untold numbers of wild animals and birds. It took four summers and over $2 billion to clean up the spill.
2. Three Mile Island
In 1979, between 4 and 6 in the morning, the reactor core of Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania began to melt down, though warning signs of the impending disaster went unnoticed by tired workers. The worst nuclear accident on American soil caused widespread panic, as fears of a complete meltdown spread. Though finally brought under control after a partial meltdown, the cleanup cost a billion dollars and essentially halted, to this day, construction of any new nuclear facilities in the U.S. The official investigation pointed to sleep deprivation as a prime factor in the accident.
Even worse than Three Mile Island, the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in what was then the Soviet Union is the worst nuclear disaster in human history. Sleep deprivation led to the explosion that caused the meltdown, as engineers at the plant had been working shifts of more than 13 hours. Radiation clouds covered much of Eastern Europe, 240 cases of radiation sickness were reported and a still-unknown number of deaths resulted.
4. The Challenger
In January 1986, the Challenger space shuttle took off to great excitement, and then proceeded to explode in front of horrified spectators, killing all seven astronauts aboard. A subsequent investigation found that the explosion was caused by an O-ring seal failure (essentially a rubber gasket) that allowed gas to escape and explode. The O-ring failed due to the freezing temperatures that morning, and engineers had recommended that the launch be delayed and the rings be tested for just such a failure, but launch managers, some of whom had slept only two hours before arriving at the launching at 1am that morning, rejected the testing. The Presidential Commission that investigated the disaster wrote, “The willingness of NASA employees in general to work excessive hours, while admirable, raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake.”
5. Air France Flight 447
On May 31, 2009, Air France flight 447, traveling from Brazil to France, crashed, killing all 228 people aboard in one of the worst air disasters in aviation history. The pilot, Marc Dubois, had had only one hour of sleep the prior evening, and was sleeping during the flight when the plane hit a tropical storm.
6. Great Heck High-Speed Train
On Feb. 28, 2001, a high-speed train in the United Kingdom hit a Land Rover that was stuck on the track. The crash, at Great Heck, killed 10 people and seriously injured another 82 people. It was the worst UK train disaster of the 21st century thus far. The subsequent investigation found that the engineer was sleep-deprived and had failed to apply the brakes while going downhill, making him unable to stop in time.
Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history.