Is the Effect of Sleep Deprivation on Humans Overrated?


Sleep is a normal activity very important for our well-being. There are numerous theories, which try to explain why organisms sleep. The recuperative theory according to Milton (1994) states that “animals sleep so that physiological and biochemical repairs can take place”. As per the circadian theory, the normal wake-sleep cycle is about 25 hours. A free-running 25-hour cycle then gets modified to tune in to the 24-hour natural day-night cycle. Therefore, if this body clock gets disturbed, it results in sleep deprivation leading to disorientation, tiredness, and lack of concentration. However, many scientists and researchers believe that the effects of sleep deprivation are highly overrated and that humans can make do with much less sleep with no real loss of efficiency.

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Brown (2001), quoting Dr. James Russell states that “two three-hour periods of sleep a day were “ideal.” Dr. Russell’s research on night shift workers concluded that “night workers should take 20-minute sleep breaks between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. to counter tiredness” (Brown, 2001). Thus as per Russell’s research, five to six hours of sleep were adequate to tide over tiredness. Some other scientists argue that while there are many theories, none satisfactorily explain why or how much sleep is enough for normal levels of human efficiency, nor do the theories stand for rigorous scientific testing.

Coren (1996) however, differs, arguing that empirical evidence suggests that sleep deprivation does cause great loss of efficiency. He states that “in 1988 the cost of motor-vehicle accidents caused by sleepiness was $37.9-billion”(p.21). General sleep deprivation studies have revealed that “In the most extensive, controlled dose-response experiment on chronic sleep restriction to date, the neurocognitive effects of 14 days of sleep limitation to no more than 4, 6, or 8 hours time in bed were compared with the effects of total sleep deprivation after 1, 2, and 3 nights without sleep” (Durmer & Dinges, 2005, p.123). Another excellent study on the effects of sleep deprivation was carried out by NASA’s Ames Research Center on an NTSB 1993 report of a DC 8 crash in Guantanamo bay. This study found that the Captain of the ill-fated aircraft who because of the airline duty schedule had “In the last 28.5 hours prior to the accident been awake for 23.5 hours with 5 hours of sleep” ( Roskind p.6). So great had been the sleep deprivation in the extant case that the Captain chose the more difficult approach runway despite being unfamiliar with the airport. In the seconds before the crash, the psychomotor response of both the captain and the copilot was decidedly slow to respond to the automatic audio stall warning. This was recorded by the Cockpit Voice Recorder and analyzed threadbare by the NASA research team. The pilot survived the crash and when asked how did he feel just before the crash, he replied that he had felt “lethargic and indifferent” (Roskind p.9).


This remark very clearly brings out the deleterious effect of sleep deprivation especially in specialized fields such as aviation. According to Cohen (1996), statistical data revealed that “In 1988, in the U.S., a total of 24,318 deaths resulted from accidents related to sleepiness” (Coren, 1996, p.21). Thus while some may argue that sleep deprivation is overrated, statistical data clearly points to the fact that less sleep does cause a drastic loss of efficiency, and therefore in the absence of any verifiable claim, the established practices and general ‘rule of the thumb’ durations such as 8 hours of sleep for an average adult should be taken as an accepted truism.


Brown, Jason. (2001). Three Hours Sleep ‘ideal’, says Doctor. 2008. Web.

Coren, Stanley (1996). Sleep Sliding Away [Electronic version]. Saturday Night, 111, 2008. Web.

Durmer, Jeffrey S & Dinges, David F. (2005). Neurocognitive Consequences Of Sleep Deprivation. 2008. Web.

Milton, John.(1994). Recent Functional Theories of Sleep and Dreaming. 2008. Web.

Rosekind, Mark R, Gregory, Kevin B, Miller, Donna L, Elizabeth, Lebacqz, J. Victor and

Malcolm Brenner. Examining Fatigue Factors in Accident Investigations: Analysis of Guantanamo Bay Aviation Accident. 2008. Web.