One of the most pervasive pathologies of the wi-fi-enabled, smartphone-strapping, “globally competitive marketplace” world we currently live in is the constant, rushed sense that there is simply no time. Where previous millenia made calendars, and the Industrial Age brought us the clock-regulated day and the hourly wage, we rush ourselves from pillar to post on schedules planned minute-by-minute. Doug Rushkoff calls our current condition “Present Shock,” an obsession with micro-time that is depleting our attention and energy from the genuine human goods of life, especially since the last thing on anyone’s mind is getting the full eight hours of sleep we all know the doctors recommend.
It would seem a good thing, then, that the multi-billion dollar coffee industry has ensured a mocha on every street corner, and fair-trade beans in every pot. Even more helpful, energy drinks like Red Bull, Monster, and Five-Hour Energy concentrate the caffeine further, so that we can be back at, or even above, our normal functioning despite our perpetual sleep deprivation. For those in school at one level or another, prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin make the rounds to enable all-night study sessions. In such a competitive culture, it might even be seen an irresponsible to throw those extra hours away when they can be chemically substituted so effectively.
Science is starting to bring a rude awakening to the sleep-sparing, however. As Maria Konnikova notes over at the New Yorker, “While caffeine has numerous benefits, it appears that the drug may undermine creativity more than it stimulates it.” Caffeine boosts energy without a doubt, and blocks a brain chemical that would normally inhibit other brain activity, “aiding short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration.” All good so far, but Konnikova quickly notes that
much of what we associate with creativity—whether writing a sonnet or a mathematical proof—has to do with the ability to link ideas, entities, and concepts in novel ways. This ability depends in part on the very thing that caffeine seeks to prevent: a wandering, unfocussed mind. [sic]
Caffeine blocks “the parts of our brain that are more active when we’re at rest” and which “become activated right before we solve problems of insight. Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion.” This extends far beyond the creativity associated with the painter or the poet. Many of our greatest scientific or mathematical discoveries took place not in the lab, or at the chalkboard, but in moments of mental leisure, the proverbial eureka in the shower. And the highest performers across all fields may want to take special note: some research has found even prescription stimulants to taper off in their enhancing effects towards the high end of the bell curve; indeed, they may even start retarding the cognitive powers of the most naturally gifted.
For those who, like Jacques Barzun, swear by the enhancing qualities of caffeine, fear not, as Konnikova notes a hopeful solution: “Some research has found that attributes like increased alertness and focus can be replicated by the placebo effect,” as research substituting decaf for regular coffee has found the benefits of caffeine to only show up among those who believe they have consumed regular coffee, regardless of the true content of their drink.
And while many may feel that they don’t have nearly the need for brilliant insights as they do of those extra few hours of activity, Jane Brody of the New York Times has an unwelcome recounting of all the health maladies that insufficient sleep are linked to, including diabetes, obesity, depression and substance abuse, ADHD, and even finds “The cognitive decline that so often accompanies aging may in part result from chronically poor sleep.”
Those who convince themselves that a five-hour sleep paired with a five-mile run is the key to a healthy and productive life may be fooling themselves, then, and may ultimately be sacrificing countless subtle improvements in their quality of work and life for the sake of a small quantity of time.