Thanks For The Advice

Truman Hanks CdeP 2014 writes to us from Stanford just in time for the crunch of finals and end-of-year assessments.

Every morning at Stanford University, almost all of the seven thousand undergraduates are woken up by one means or another, whether it’s an alarm clock, snoring roommate, or seemingly incessant construction. But as the year goes on, more and more students prolong their nightly rest in increments of five or more minutes at a time. I am of course referring to the snooze button.

It seems only natural. Many freshmen have only been away from home for a few months. There are no more parents from whom to ask for “a few more minuuuuutes!” The artificial snooze button is simply a digital extension of that behavior. Granted, a substantial number of high school students manage to wake themselves in the morning, but the transition from the parent to the digital whines and rings of an alarm clock more than likely happened at some point. And what could feel better than hitting a button to give you exactly what you want when you are feeling groggy in the morning: more sleep.

But the snooze button has not been around forever. In the modern world, what with our fancy light bulbs and jobs and computers, our natural sleep patterns have been altered. The time of day has seen increasing importance since the nineteenth century. Over the past several thousand years, our attention to time has narrowed and sharpened drastically. It used to be that you only needed to know which season it was. Then it became which month, then which day of the week, and then which day of the year. After that, all that was important was the relative position of the sun in the sky.

It was only when rapid travel and communication between localities became commonplace that the actual hour of the day was important. Local time was judged based entirely upon the sun reaching its highest point at noon, but even a few miles make a difference in that regard. Time and scheduling became so preposterous that the railroad company’s schedules could be a dozen minutes off from the local time on purpose, in order to have consistent scheduling across all rail stops.

This confusion, of course, led to the creation of time zones, but the point remains the same: in our modern world, time is important. And perhaps the most important is when one starts the day. So why delay the inevitable and create the snooze button? Well one answer is that it was a gimmick to sell more clock radios or alarm clocks, which may be true. But the important question is whether the snooze button serves any tangible benefit or just caters to the whim of the delirious morning mind. In other words, does instant gratification in the morning have any serious drawbacks later in the day?

First, it is important to understand sleep cycles in regards to depth of sleep. The human body has multiple mechanisms in place to ensure good sleep, which has two main stages: REM or Rapid Eye Movement, and NREM or Non-Rapid Eye Movement. REM occupies about one quarter of total sleep with periods that increase in length as the night goes on, while NREM occurs earlier in and throughout the sleep period. Most of the physical rest and bodily self-maintenance occurs during NREM. But that is not to say that REM is unimportant. Some scholars believe that NREM can be considered “physical rest” while REM is “mental rest.” Either way, both are important functions and are necessary to have fulfilling sleep.

Interrupting sleep at any point during the cycle though results in what is called sleep inertia. Much like how objects in straight line motion tend to stay in straight like motion and objects at rest tend to stay at rest, bodies asleep tend to want to stay asleep. This can be experienced as the feeling of grogginess and tiredness after waking up from sleep. It can lead to poor productivity in the morning and a simple sense of dread and unpleasantness, which is why the snooze button is so tempting. They are a built-in feature of an alarm clock that undermines the alarm clock’s purpose. If alarms exist to wake someone up to get to work or school on time, they also interrupt the sleep patterns of their owners and could potentially decrease effectiveness in the workplace. Furthermore, sleep inertia can be greater (i.e. you can feel groggy longer) depending on which stage of sleep one was in when woken up. Usually, being woken up during NREM sleep leads to a greater sleep inertia than being woken up during REM. This could be due to brain activity being higher during REM than during NREM, thus the sensation of wakefulness requires a larger neurological transition from NREM sleep.

Of course, it is hard to personally gauge what stage of sleep you will be in at a certain point in time. The only way to have some measure – besides having your brain, muscle, and eye activity actively measured with an EEG, EMG, and EOG – is to have a consistent circadian rhythm. In terms of sleep, it more or less means going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day. Now, with the weekday-weekend dynamic, many individuals tend to go to bed at different times on Fridays and Saturdays than they do on other days of the week, myself included. This somewhat counteracts our bodies efforts to understand and adjust to our rhythms. With these inconsistencies, alarm clocks become necessary to keep our waking ours aligned with our working hours.

But as I mentioned before, alarm clocks interrupt sleep, which is less than ideal. This is a fair compromise, as millions of people have managed to cope with a bit of sleep inertia in the morning. But when you combine the initial interruption of sleep with a snooze button, you get fragmented sleep, which is even worse. When you hit the button and go to sleep for another five minutes, you can enter back into NREM sleep, which, remember, results in more sleep inertia and grogginess when it is interrupted than REM. This leads to an even greater desire to go back to sleep. It is easy to see where the problems lie.

In my own personal experience in preparation for writing this article, I found that the snooze button was an easy pit to get sucked into. Most days, I have a class that starts at 11:00, which means I set my alarm for 10:15. However, I usually end up rolling out of bed at 10:40 or 10:45 because I hit the snooze button five or six times. The only reason I even end up out of bed is because I don’t want to sleep through class. I started forcing myself to fully wake up when the first alarm goes off, which I must say was very difficult. The way I finally got myself to do it was to fully disable the snooze feature on my alarms (I use my phone as my alarm clock). This generated a genuine sense of fear that I would fall back to sleep and miss my classes, which I found got my brain firing enough neurons such that I wouldn’t fall back asleep and I felt pretty alert. Later, once I got more comfortable with it, I started doing some multiplication problems in my head to get my brain going.

All in all, my experience with the snooze button (or rather, the absence of one) actually led to better mornings and less grogginess. I even set my alarm back a few minutes to 10:30. It’s safe to say that I won’t fall back into my old habit of nearly incessant use of the snooze button.

There are alternate methods of managing the process of waking up, though. The most basic is to simply fall into a consistent rhythm. Spend a week or so finding out how long you sleep for before waking up naturally and plan ahead, going to sleep early enough to wake up naturally before the alarm goes off. This all but guarantees fulfilling sleep.

Another option I’ve explored in years past is to use a so-called “smart” alarm. What these do is try to determine which sleep phase you are in and wake you up when you are in a light sleep, thus minimizing sleep inertia. My particular smart alarm came in the form of a smartphone application that used the accelerometer in the phone to measure my movement patterns. The phone would rest on the bed or the bed frame and wake me up at my lightest sleep within a set range of times. After a few weeks, however, I saw no significant change or benefit to the quality of my mornings. Granted, it is a basic system, and the logic behind the idea seems sound. I’m sure if I could get used to sleeping with electrodes on me, a similar system could prove more accurate.

The most important thing to remember though is that sleep is incredibly important. Simply getting sleep takes precedence over feeling groggy in the morning. After all, sleep inertia has a temporary effect, but sleep deprivation is far more serious. In the grand scheme of things, the snooze button is a small evil. There are plenty of people who use the snooze button that aren’t constantly drowsy, and like anything else, can be fine when used in moderation. It’s just that mornings can be far more pleasant when used without a snooze button. I didn’t previously consider myself a morning person, but now I find I am much more alert earlier in the day.

I hope this article provided some insight to sleep and the processes behind your mornings. Know that avoiding the snooze button can be a key aspect in the fight against drowsiness.