Can't sleep? Joe Schroeder's class reveals the dangers of not getting enough rest

 Associate Professor of Neuroscience Joe Schroeder

Associate Professor of Neuroscience Joe Schroeder

Associate Professor of Neuroscience Joe Schroeder is known on campus for putting students to sleep — but in a good way. It’s all in the name of research.

The class he designed, “The Psychology of Sleep,” is popular not only for its insights into something few college students do — get a good night’s rest — but also because the students themselves are both the researchers and the research participants.

“We ask students to be designers, moderators and participants in studying sleep stages so they can apply what they’ve learned to their own lives,” said Schroeder. “They develop questions, assist with the analysis and discuss research implications as a group.”

Rather than purchasing textbooks, students are asked to buy high-tech headgear called Zeo systems, or mini-EEG machines, that record brain activity. Attached via a Velcro headband, this mobile sleep management system allows students to record their own sleep patterns several nights each week then upload data wirelessly into a web-based application. Zeo Sleep Manager Pro produces a personalized assessment or “ZQ” sleep score based on the amount of time spent in each sleep stage —light, deep and REM (rapid eye movement). 

Perhaps the most significant finding was the correlation between sleep loss and exam scores. Students who recorded less than four hours of sleep received an average grade of 69 on their first test, while those who slept eight or more hours scored an average of 84.

Results also showed that students try to compensate for their “sleep debt” during weekends. While this tends to even out how much sleep one gets over the course of a week, the pattern does not translate into quality sleep or improved cognitive performance.

In addition to analyzing their own sleep habits, the class also studied a number of unusual sleep behaviors such as the phenomenon of texting while asleep.

“For some people, their phone is like an extension of their arm,” said Schroeder. “They are conditioned to more or less automatically respond to a text message. If they sleep with their phone and a message arrives, they may respond to it without being fully awake or may not remember sending a text the next morning.”

Some of what Schroeder, the 2011 recipient of the John S. King Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, hopes students will take away from the class is the importance of starting healthy sleep patterns. He advises sleeping a minimum of seven hours each night and setting a regular sleep schedule for both weekdays and weekends.

“I hope to expand my research with students and explore new ideas relevant to sleep,” said Schroeder. “I want students to understand that getting a good night’s rest is key to feeling good and having an overall better quality of life.”

Listen to a recording of Schroeder’s presentation of “The Psychology of Sleep” at Reunion 2012.