It was the oops that ended a presidential campaign. After struggling for almost a minute in a November debate to come up with the third federal agency he’d eliminate should he win the Oval Office, Texas Gov. Rick Perry finally admitted he couldn’t remember.
While his campaign quickly tried to limit the damage, there had been earlier signs that Gov. Perry was in trouble that had little to do with his campaign war chest, his policies, or his personal charisma. Instead, they had everything to do with his pillow.
“We had a tired puppy,” one of Perry’s Republican allies told The New York Times after the governor had performed poorly in a string of earlier debates. Aides tried to rework his schedule in order for Governor Perry to get more hours of slumber, but it apparently wasn’t enough before that November night.
For most of us, it’s easy to see the stumble as nothing more than a memorable gaffe. Yet Governor Perry’s moment of forgetfulness should also serve as the sum of all fears for anyone who sees sleep as something that can be put off or overlooked without painful consequences. When a person lies down to sleep at night, the brain undergoes a process that is crucial to learning, memory, and performance in ways that scientists are only now beginning to understand. Though the exact mechanisms of the brain remain unclear, studies have suggested that time spent dozing has helped research subjects solve puzzles faster, pick up new skills with better results, and think more quickly on their feet.
Why does sleep help turn us into more competent versions of ourselves? Part of the answer is the simple fact that chronic sleep deprivation, which for most of us means routinely getting six or less hours of sleep each night, essentially makes us feel and act like we’re drunk. This breakdown most likely affects you even if you think you can function without sleep and not suffer the consequences. There are some that can stay awake longer, of course, but they remain relatively rare: in 2009, researchers at UC–San Francisco identified an unusual genetic mutation that allowed members of one family to routinely go with less than six hours of sleep with no clear tradeoffs in ability or health.
A study in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine published in 2000 applies to the rest of us. Researchers gathered a group of subjects that included employees at a transportation company and members of the Australian Army. Each person was tested on his or her ability to drive in a simulated road test. As subjects went without sleeping, their reaction times slowed, their memories dulled, and their sense of time grew hazy. Soon, it was clear that those who had stayed awake for more than 17 straight hours were in worse shape than those with a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent, the level that qualified as legally drunk in Australia.
But sleep’s benefits aren’t simply preventing slowing reaction times. Sleep also looks to bolster the brain’s ability to handle taxing mental loads. This even applies to naps. Researchers at the City University of New York, for example, gave test subjects a pair of objects and told them that they would be judged on their ability to remember them later. One group was given a 90-minute break to take a nap, while the other group spent that time awake watching a movie. Subjects came back to the testing room expecting to complete the simple memory puzzle. Researchers instead asked them to describe the relationships between the objects that made up each pair, rather them simply recall them.
[I]t was clear that those who had stayed awake for more than 17 straight hours were in worse shape than those with a blood alcohol content of 0.5 percent
The amount of time each subject slept determined how well he or she performed on the task. Subjects who were able to reach deeper stages of sleep demonstrated a better command of flexible thinking, a vital cognitive skill that allows us to apply old facts and information to new situations. It was as if sleep stretched the muscles of the brain, and it responded by bending its conception of reality in a way that let it arrive at a new vision. Other subjects in studies who were allowed to sleep have finished mazes faster, have become less emotional when confronted with disturbing images, and have remembered a longer list of words than their peers who hadn’t been allowed to doze off.
This has real-world applications outside of the research labs, of course. Athletes, for whom any slight change in ability can mean the difference between winning and losing, are turning to sleep as one of the last untapped advantages left in sports. Some Major League Baseball coaches, for instance, have instituted rules that players must get to the ballpark early to take naps before games, all in hopes that the edge from extra sleep will result in a team that plays consistently well. Airline pilots, military soldiers, long-haul truckers and others who work dangerous jobs, meanwhile, are also more likely to receive orders to boost their sleep before coming on duty.
It’s a requirement that seems particularly effective with pitchers, for whom sheer athleticism is only half of the battle. The other half is knowing the tendencies of your opponent—whether he will bite at a high curveball, or how often he swings at the first pitch. A pitcher who isn’t getting enough sleep has already lost the memory battle that he fights every time he is on the mound.
That’s exactly the kind of mental contest in which Governor Perry essentially forfeited that fateful night in November, as he continued to campaign at a pace that gave him little time for sleep. Not long after the debate, Sen. John McCain told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he had some advice for Governor Perry: get some sleep. “Every time I’ve made a serious political mistake … it’s been when I’m tired,” he said.
That, in fact, could be our new rallying cry: more zzzs, fewer oops.