But too many Americans are deep in "drowsy denial," says sleep researcher James B. Maas

More than 80 percent of college undergraduate students are smart enough to take a nap and help restore their mental and physical powers, according to a survey of 802 Cornell psychology students.

That's good news to sleep researcher and longtime nap-advocate James B. Maas, professor of psychology in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences. But too many of the best-educated students and too many working Americans, he believes, still fail to acknowledge their need for ZZZZZs, as Maas documents in two upcoming books.

"After completing what is probably the world's only introductory psychology class to devote 3-1/2 weeks to the importance of sleep, 30 percent of my students say they get more sleep than before," an encouraged Maas said. "We need three things to stay alive and healthy: nutrition, exercise and -- no matter what shape we're in -- adequate sleep. We must educate people about their own sleep needs -- which are usually substantially underestimated," the psychologist said, explaining why, after three decades of sleep research, he is turning his attention to a troubling phenomenon -- inappropriate drowsiness.

Last fall Maas surveyed his Psychology 101 class, which, with 1,300 students each semester, offers a reasonably representative cross section of the university's 13,300-member undergraduate student body. The results:

  • About 30 percent of 802 students reported that, as a result of what they learned about sleep in Psych 101, they were getting more sleep each night.
  • Some 34 percent said they were getting the same amount of sleep; 3 percent were sleeping less.
  • About 23 percent of the psychology students reported more frequent naps.
  • Overall, 81 percent said they take at least one nap a week; 17 percent reported napping at least four days a week and 17 percent said they never napped.

Maas, who coined the term "power nap" for the 20-minute workday snooze that invariably leaves nappers refreshed and more productive, is delighted that college students are getting some sleep. On average, he says, college students and much of the general population get considerably less than seven hours of sleep a day. About a third of the American population somehow survives on fewer than six hours of sleep. That's far less than the American norm of 10 hours a day in the 1800s, before Edison invented the electric light bulb and people stopped going to bed with the chickens.

"It may be that 10 hours of sleep a day is normal for human beings; certainly most of us function better with at least eight hours," Maas said. The consequences of sleep deprivation are horrific, the psychologist says, pointing to traffic accidents, industrial mishaps and the lower quality of life as drowsy people become more irritable and dysfunctional.

For college-age students who are tempted to drink and drive with inadequate sleep, the Cornell psychologist cites a recent finding from another laboratory: A driver who consumes one beer on five to six hours of sleep is just as impaired as an eight-hour sleeper who drinks a six-pack.

"When drowsy drivers say, 'I don't understand -- I only had one drink,' they may be telling the truth. But they're failing to recognize the effect that insufficient sleep has on our minds and bodies," Maas said. Details of sleep research at Cornell and at other institutions are presented in two upcoming books by Maas, The Power of Sleep: Preparing the Mind for Peak Performance, and a second volume co-written with Stanford University sleep researcher William Dement, M.D., tentatively titled The Stanford-Cornell Sleep Book for College Students.

While considerable research has focused on sleep disorders and sleep itself, Maas is now examining the condition of many sleep-deprived people who spend their days in a daze -- that state of drowsiness on the verge of dozing off at the wrong time or place. He is asking such questions as: Do you always know when you are about to fall asleep? (More than 50 percent of Maas' students said no, that sleep catches them by surprise or that they are uncertain whether they know or not.)

Too many Americans are like the student who wrote Maas during exams last semester, he said. "She was getting by on two hours of sleep a night and getting good grades. She thought she was Superwoman and the rules didn't apply to her, so she ignored all the signs.

"I was sure I had my body fooled," sophomore Susan Goodman wrote in a late night e-mail." "Yes, I was tired and, yes, I wasn't feeling top notch, but I was doing so well. Then I crashed."

"Yes, it's possible, to accumulate a sleep deficit," Maas said. "But sooner than we expect, our bodies have a way of collecting that sleep debt, and the results can be disastrous."

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