‘Boffins are giving teenagers an extra hour in bed not because they think the teenagers will enjoy it, but because they reckon it will make them do better in their exams.’ Photograph: Alamy
The news that lucky teenagers at 100 British schools are to be given a lie-in as part of a scientific experiment will cause jubilation among those concerned, both the children and their parents. I know from bitter experience that getting a grumpy, monosyllabic, growling 14-year-old out of bed in the morning is extraordinarily painful.
I blame social conditioning. Somewhere in the recesses of our mind we still harbour a fantasy that our children will leap out of bed at 6.30 every morning, full of good cheer, ready to tackle the challenges of the day with aplomb. Early rising, or “scraping the ice off the windscreen on a winter’s morning”, as David Cameron put it in his uninspiring speech about hard work at the Tory party conference last week, is meant to be a good thing.
This fantasy of being up with the lark is precisely that though: a fantasy. As Jerome K Jerome wondered back in 1889, towards the end of the supposedly hard-working Victorian era: “Is there any human being, I wonder, besides the hero of a Sunday-school ‘tale for boys’, who ever gets up willingly?”
No, we are all slumberers. But the utilitarians out there have generally tried to make the snoozers feel bad. The great thing, though, about this new experiment is that it’s all in aid of science and a booming economy. The reason the boffins are giving teenagers an extra hour in bed is not because they think the teenagers will enjoy it, but because they reckon it will make them do better in their exams. Yes, it is as simple as that. Recent studies in the field of neuroscience – ie brain scans – suggest that sleep improves brain power.
More sleep equals economic growth: that is the extraordinary equation that we’re nearing. Which is great. If we can somehow convince the authorities, with the help of science, that sleep is good for productivity, then we’re on to a win-win situation.
And it really is happening. In June this year a report in the journal Science linked braininess and sleep. Researchers compared two groups of mice. One group of mice was deprived of sleep, while another was allowed to doze as long as they wanted. The sleep-deprived mice appeared to be considerably more stupid than their well-rested fellows. “Sleep helps neurons form very specific connections on dendritic branches [ie brain cell connectors] that may facilitate long-term memory,” concluded the researchers. “Different types of learning form synapses on different branches of the same neurons, suggesting that learning causes very specific structural changes in the brain.”