A leading expert on sleep offers her take on three concurrent events affecting Americans’ bedtime routine this week. Head of the SomneuroLab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, professor of psychological and brain sciences Rebecca Spencer is well-known for her research on the function of naps for preschool children and the role of age-related changes in sleep on age-related cognitive decline.
Here’s what Spencer has to say about a trifecta of sleep influences converging now in homes across the country:
The annual end of Daylight Saving Time
“Falling back” one hour at 2 a.m. Nov. 1 provides an opportunity for people catch up on lost sleep, Spencer says. “Even just that one extra hour is significant enough to see benefits. There are fewer car accidents immediately following that extra hour of sleep, for example. But this great ‘nationwide sleep experiment’ flips when we spring forward in the spring and you see increased accidents in response to one hour of sleep loss.”
The acute and chronic effects of COVID-19
“While initially we saw sleep increases when people were stuck at home and had flexible schedules, we see that in the more ‘chronic’ pandemic stage that we are in now, there are two patterns – some who have maintained these very flexible schedules and reduced time spent commuting and others who are facing pandemic stressors (job loss, increased work demands under pandemic conditions). Pandemic dreams have also been telling, reflecting the very different daytime experiences.”
And, perhaps the big one:
Election night stress
Politically speaking, Americans are painfully split, and people on all sides are anxious about the outcome of Tuesday’s General Election. “We sleep poorly under uncertainty,” Spencer says. “This stress is already compromising sleep for many, and especially on election night when, we will likely stay up later than ever waiting to hear election results.” And since the outcome on Wednesday may not be conclusive or satisfactory, the stress may escalate. “This uncertainty also sends us to our phones or other screens to get information, adding the negative effects of light to the poor sleep equation.”
Spencer was featured in the Netflix documentary series, “Babies,” and appeared in a PBS NOVA program called “Mysteries of Sleep.”
Rebecca Spencer Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Rebecca Spencer is one of the nation's leading researchers exploring the relationship between sleep and brain function.