This post originally appeared in MoviusConsulting.com.
Dr. Jessica Payne holds the Nancy O’Neill Collegiate Chair in Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. An expert in sleep, memory, and self-regulation, she is the recipient of numerous awards at both Harvard and Notre Dame for her teaching and research. Recently we sat down with her to learn more about her work – and some surprising findings.
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Movius: Tell us about your research. How did you end up studying sleep?
JP: I went to graduate school at the University of Arizona to conduct research on stress, especially stress hormones and how they affect our thinking and memory. I was initially focused on false memories and the effect of stress on memory, particularly for emotional and traumatic events. We found that when you’re under moderate to high levels of stress, you end up having exceptional memory for negative events but often at the expense of neutral and emotionally positive events. I also came up with this crazy theory of dreaming. We looked at how dreams might reflect memory consolidation during the night, and how they might even reflect the brain reconstructing memories. That led to my post-doc at Harvard, where I looked at how sleep affects memory processing and cognition.
I joined the faculty at Notre Dame to continue my research, and particularly the connection between stress, sleep, emotions, and performance.
In organizational settings I look at high-power executives with high levels of stress and how that affects their performance and leadership style. And we see sleep issues such as insomnia among so many executives today. The good news is that because those systems are interlinked, there are lots of potential ways to intervene to help people. Even brief naps seem to benefit emotional outlook for example.
Movius: You’re fascinated by sleep!
JP: I’m on this mission to get people to understand what sleep really is. Most people tend to think of it as an inactive state with body and brain switched off. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the sleeping brain is intensely active. If you start looking at regional activity, parts of the brain are even more active during certain stages of sleep such as REM. The brain is clearly busy processing memories, processing emotions, and regulating. I think once people understand that their brain isn’t really switched off, they see that sleep is actually doing something critical. They realize that by shortchanging sleep, they’re shortchanging themselves because they’re not going to do their best thinking, or feel their best. They’ll end up more stressed, and they especially won’t be ready to generate creative ideas or insight.
Movius: For many folks there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day. How can busy people improve their performance when they haven’t slept enough? Is caffeine helpful?
JP: Caffeine has some benefits, but it produces the opposite of being in an offline state. When you’re brain goes offline, neurochemistry changes in ways that make you more creative, in a way that active wakefulness can’t. What caffeine does is to ramp up our attentional network, and that’s the opposite of the offline state where you can consolidate memories and where you can produce creative insights.
Movius: What about napping? Can daytime naps make up for lost sleep?
JP: Yes, they can help. If you know you won’t get the sleep you need at night, try to add 20 minutes to your sleep during the day. The nap research is really compelling.
It suggests strongly that we can train ourselves to nap in the afternoon, and that it really helps. If you go longer than 20 minutes, especially if you’re sleep deprived, you run the risk of falling into deep sleep, the type of sleep that’s difficult to awaken from. But at 20 minutes you stay in a lighter mode, in stage 2 sleep. You wake up refreshed and rejuvenated from that kind of sleep and the data tell us that you reap cognitive benefits. What’s most interesting to me is that people who get enough sleep at night still seem to benefit from the brief daytime power nap. This means that the benefits of napping aren’t only about recovery from deficits. We’re studying this phenomenon now in the lab.
Other offline states, like doing a relaxation exercise, stretching and yoga, or even a reflective walk outside the workplace can also help.
Movius: You call these “sleep proxies” – what is that?
JP: Right. I call them “sleep proxies” because they’re not the same as sleeping, but they are active steps you can take to help your brain when it is depleted.
Movius: Some historians claim that it is relatively recent and abnormal practice to try to get all our sleep in one eight-hour stretch. Any truth to that?
JP: Getting good, quality sleep at night is important, but the data does show you can break it up a little bit. We see that in siesta cultures; it’s perfectly healthy. It’s more a question of where you are in the cycle when you wake up. Breaking up our natural hour and a half cycles can be deregulating, but as long as you’re not doing that, you can break up your sleep.
Movius: What about insomniacs – I’ve heard that if you really can’t sleep, you should try not to nap and to stay awake instead.
JP: This advice does not apply to people who have insomnia. Napping might help in the short-term, but they need to figure out why they are failing to sleep well at night, even when they have the opportunities.
Movius: In some corporate cultures there is so much pressure to be seen as going above and beyond. Do you find that leaders in top organizations are receptive to what the research seems to be suggesting?
JP: In the beginning, when I first started giving talks in the corporate world, I expected a lot of pushback. What makes me happy is that leaders really are taking this seriously. I think it helps that I’m a scientist, coming into these talks with a lot of data behind my recommendations. Something like a 20-minute nap, they buy into it very quickly because it makes sense and really, anyone can do that. It’s interesting to see the light bulb switch on: I see team leaders taking on these ideas and passing them on to their teams. And the feedback I keep getting, sometimes years later, is that it does really help. People feel better when they get more sleep; and they feel better when leaders recognize the importance of sleep. So interventions aren’t only about the hard-wired, biological necessity of sleep. There are interpersonal, psychosocial factors that are at play as well.
Movius: Sometimes just naming a problem, making it real and legitimate, helps people be forgiving of themselves and of their colleagues.
JP: Yes, I think you are right. I think there is definitely something to naming struggles around sleep that helps people feel more normal and more able to imagine take small steps that can help. Again, it’s sort of built into corporate culture that people are going to be sleep deprived, be under chronic strain. That’s supposed to be normal in order to meet the bottom line. I think what I’m trying to say is creating happier and healthier employees improves productivity and engagement, and that benefits your bottom line. So why not try that?
Movius: What are some examples you’ve seen?
JP: At one company, a senior team decided to use sleep as a way to strengthen decision-making. They now discuss or attack new ideas late in the afternoon, toward the end of the day, go home and sleep, and then come back and make key decisions the next day. And although I don’t know all of the details, I gather that they have seen a positive business outcome.
Movius: Recent studies in Psychological Science suggested a significant connection between cheating and time of day. It seems people are more ethical in the morning and less so at night. But then a second study suggested that the result depend on each person’s circadian rhythm: if you’re a night person, you cheat more in the morning and if you’re a morning person you cheat more at night. Should companies be hiring people and making decisions about when people meet as a function of individual difference? Are we truly morning and night people – or are we shaped by our environments to become like that?
JP: There is a very strong genetic, biological component. People who are not strongly predisposed to be morning or night people can shift their schedules fairly easily. But the people on the extremes have a lot of difficulty doing that. I actually think that one of the easiest ways to increase performance is to let people work in their optimal circadian zone: let morning people do their hardest work in the morning and night people would do their hardest work at night. Your resources are really depleted at the time of day that’s not best for you.
Movius: Is there a developmental aspect as well? Does age come in to play?
JP: Yes. Little kids are very much morning types, but adolescents have a biological reason why they can’t go to sleep early. School systems that move back the start of school to around 9:00am see higher test scores, fewer traffic accidents, and fewer behavioral issues in students. Then as we grow older into adulthood, we find it easier to wake up earlier if necessary.
Hal: How much does sleep deprivation contribute to negative mood, compared to, say, our genes, or other situational factors? And how does that happen?
JP: The frontal lobe is the first part of the brain to go when you’re sleep deprived. When those circuits aren’t working, there is no down-regulation of the amygdala, which is a central component of negative emotion, especially fear and anger. Stress also generates this deficiency. For decades, we thought the densest collection of stress hormone secretors was in the hippocampus. While we do have a ton there, we have even more in our frontal cortex. Sleep deprivation is also one of the best ways to spike your cortisol, which is a stress hormone. So whether you’re highly stressed or sleep deprived – or more typically both – you are at a marked disadvantage for figuring out how to regulate yourself appropriately in a social context. Obviously this has huge ramifications for negotiation and other forms of high-stakes communication.
Movius: Given the importance of sleep, are there steps we can take to be sure we get it when we need to?
JP: I would recommend building healthy habits around relaxation, which in turn will help with sleep. Meditation or guided relaxation exercises at some point in each day can be helpful. A warm bath before bed is also really helpful. It’s not just the relaxation; it’s thermoregulation as well. A drop in body temperature during the first 30 minutes of sleep predicts how well you’ll sleep that night. Taking a warm bath first heats and then cools your body. That helps your brain and body to fall asleep more quickly and get deeper sleep in the first part of the night.
Movius: What about taking melatonin?
JP: Melatonin is interesting. Most people who struggle with sleep disorders don’t typically find melatonin very useful. It’s not really a sleep medication. What it does is tell your brain that it’s nighttime. I recommend it for jetlag to kick-start your circadian rhythm. But again, I say go with whatever works. For some people it doesn’t work. For others, they seem to find it helpful.
Movius: If someone is feeling anxious and having difficulty sleeping, is it better to take an anti-anxiety medication that has hypnotic properties like Xanax? Is that better than Ambien for anxiety and sleep problems?
JP: Yes, that’s been shown in a number of studies. But for a lot of people, Ambien works just fine. On the other hand, when you take Ambien, you’re not getting natural sleep. But the effectiveness for any single person depends a lot on biological differences and on how intense the stress or anxiety is. For an occasional sleep issue, both are fine. But taken repeatedly or over a long period of time, these drugs screw up our sleep architecture. You don’t always get the deep sleep or REM that you need, and getting back to our natural sleep cycle takes much longer.
Movius: Let’s imagine that someone tried one or more of these techniques or drugs, but still didn’t sleep well. Since missing sleep is so hard on the brain, what can people do to avoid saying or doing things they will regret on a bad day?
JP: If you’re literally about to walk into a key meeting, go to the bathroom first and take five minutes to do a diaphragmatic breathing exercise. Breathing slowly from your belly really helps the brain and body. Also, make a rule for yourself to wait a few seconds before you respond, so you’re not just reacting impulsively. You might make it clear to your colleagues or counterparts that you are not prepared to make any decisions that day. But in the end, it is much better to develop good sleep habits over time than it is to try to cope with a lack of sleep. Your brain needs to sleep to function well, and if your brain is not at its best, you won’t be, either.