It was in early 2018, in the temperature-controlled Sleep Research Laboratory in the Life Sciences department of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), that seven mice took us one step closer in the quest to unravel the mysteries of sleep. Shepherding them was Dr Sushil K Jha, a neurologist who’s devoted 20 years to mine whatever there is to know about sleep and memory consolidation.
In his experiment built on classical conditioning, Jha trained the mice to respond to a light that’d flash before a dispenser apportioned some juice. He then conditioned some to sleep after the ‘treat’, and restricted the others’ sleep. His findings? One: that sleep-deprived mice didn’t respond to the sequence of events and forfeited their chance to get juice. Two: proof that sleeping cements appetitive memory, or memory of food-related stimuli. Appetitive memory is what makes us pick a cola in a clear, chilled bottle over cola in an opaque plastic bottle. It’s what prevents animals from visiting an area rich with food if they’re conditioned by the stimulus of a threat (read: predator) there. Sleep dictates responses to stimuli and can be the difference between whether you have, or are had.
“In essence, sleep deprivation after the acquisition of a new memory leads to some impairment of that memory,” Dr Jha underlines.
Let’s zoom out and view things in perspective. In March 2017, activity tracker Fitbit announced its India-specific data for 2016. India was the second-worst sleeper (6.55 hours) after Japan (6.35 hours). As per the Sleep Cycle app, which updates country-wide findings every week, fewer than 20% Indians sleep for eight hours. Godrej Interio’s 2018 survey, which had 8,000 participants in metros, revealed that 93% reported sleep deprivation. Mattress startup Wakefit, which has an ongoing survey called the Great Indian Sleep Scorecard, released its findings across Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi, and Mumbai in March 2019. Mumbai had the worst sleep, with 81% respondents reporting insomnia and 36% sleeping less than seven hours, followed by Delhi, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad.
It’s fair to raise a brow over sleep surveys by commercial stakeholders in the ‘sleep economy’. But India has no official or government-mandated sleep survey to date. We’re one of many countries on a bandwagon that equates the lack of sleep with success. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the US, where Silicon Valley is obsessed with attaching metrics to sleep, turning a necessity into a task to be perfected in the cult of productivity. Sleep, as they know it, is an inconvenience in the pursuit of optimum wakefulness, something to be hacked through. Consider Oura smart rings, electromagnetic field-blocking Faraday tents, mattresses with sensors, white noise machines, lights that simulate sunrise, mulberry silk eye masks, and Nightfood.
Yet, the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared sleep deprivation a public health epidemic.