Some Ideas to Sleep On…

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walkercoverOn my way out to Nashville for Harmony University, I picked up Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep at Manchester Piccadilly station, as a likely-looking good read for the journey. Not only was I right about that, but the things I learned from it interacted in interesting ways with the material I was teaching all week.

The headline take-away from the book is this: please make sure you give yourself enough opportunity to sleep properly, for the sake of both your health and your effectiveness in everything you do. There’s nothing like detailed empirical substantiation of what you knew to be common sense to motivate you to be more sensible.

But onto more specific, indeed, niche take-aways…

In my class on Chorus, Cults and Charisma, one of the things we looked at was the experience of Communion, that euphoric bonding that characterises the charismatic encounter, and as part of this we considered the ways that cults soften up their adherents into a state of increased suggestibility. One of the means is sleep deprivation, and since we were covering this material on the Thursday, none of us found it hard to find examples of that in barbershop life.

Matthew Walker offered extra insight into why a lack of sleep would help potentiate communion. One of his general themes was that even small amounts of sleep deprivation produce measurable cognitive impairment, particularly in the prefrontal regions of the brain that handle executive functions such as critical thought and decision-making. Critical thought acts as an impediment to the lowering of ego boundaries needed for Communion, so anything that damps it down is likely to help that merging process.

Additionally, impairment of the executive functions also leads people to becoming more emotionally volatile. We experience our highs as higher and our lows as lower when short of sleep, so we will be more readily tipped into exalted states when we have been up singing tags until the wee small hours. This is good news for those people wanting to craft their events as peak experiences.

It is less helpful for those wanting to craft educational experiences for optimum learning. Sleep plays a significant role in both memory and the acquisition of motor skills, in ways it useful to understand. You know that moment in rehearsal when you’ve practised something in depth, and it’s not quite there yet, but you just have this hunch that what it needs is a good night’s sleep and it will be sorted? Walker provides experimental confirmation of that hunch. You can let go before people get too tired of it and trust the brains to do the rest.

During sleep – specifically, for these functions, non-rapid-eye-movement sleep – regular brain waves move new information or skills collected in the short-term memory of the hippocampus into other parts of the brain for longer-term storage. This both serves to cement this new learning, and to free up the learning functions to make room for new learning the following day. Inadequate sleep impairs both parts of this equation - a short night’s sleep after learning reduces both your retention of what you’ve learned and your capacity to engage in further learning.

You know that state when you read a page several times but the words just don’t go in? That tells you that your hippocampus is full, you need to sleep. Knowing this (and knowing how tired I was feeling myself by this stage) made me feel less bad about the way attendance fell off in some of my classes during the week of Harmony University. We were all filling our brains up and not giving ourselves enough chance to digest what we’d learned each day before the next round of input.

Attendance patterns may also have been inflected by people’s circadian rhythms. A lot of people have a significant dip in alertness in the early afternoon – a dip that was traditionally built into public life in Mediterranean countries by organising working hours round the siesta. It is probably not a coincidence that the after-lunch slot was my least-well-attended slot of the day all week. Indeed, it was the slot that had been the last to get booked up, and a lot of those who signed up late never came to a single class, so it could be people were organising their schedules around the self-knowledge of their own biorhythms.

I was about to say that having three class on the trot each afternoon with the same syllabus provided a useful control for this observation, as it wasn’t the content that was influencing the attendance patterns. But it occurs to me that I too am at my least alert in the early afternoon, so it could be that this group got the poorest learning experience from me, whatever their own energy levels, and so were voting with their feet. I can only say to those who chose to take a nap in this slot instead that I understand entirely and think it probably helped you make better use of what you learned in everyone else’s class. Oh, and also that I’m a bit envious.

So, the big-picture dilemma I came away with from this book is how to reconcile the facts that (a) late-night tag singing is where the heart of barbershop’s deep-learning in musicianship goes on and (b) inadequate sleep significantly undermines how much people will retain from what they learn in their daytime sessions. And, come to that, you won’t get the full benefit of that musicianship learning if you get up in time for breakfast.

This is a dilemma for all barbershop organisations in their educational provision, but it comes into focus most clearly at Harmony University because it is so much longer than the European events I’ve taught at which are usually 2-3 days long. Nearly a whole week exacerbates things at both ends of the scale: on one hand you have the potential to delve so much more deeply into a subject, on the other, the cumulative effect of a week of afterglows renders the brain increasingly incapable of handling that depth.

This is more than enough for one post, so I’m not going to comment at length on the other area of interest in the book – the relationship between sleep and creativity – other than to say I feel affirmed in my belief that napping makes me a better arranger.

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