Why I Want People to Get in Bed with Science

March 9, 2016 All posts Reverie Reverie

We’ve learned a lot about sleep in the past few decades, and with the rush of discoveries, sleep and sleep hygiene have made their way into the public consciousness. As more people know and care about their sleep quality, new suites of questions arise for researchers to tackle: How much sleep is right for me personally? Do my genes/diet/microbes affect my sleep, and if so how? Is amount of sleep or sleep timing or light at night the most important feature for my needs? And of course, as with all forays into personalized medicine, there is a limit to the coverage we can gain mining sleep in the lab.

The Intersection of Sleep and Daily Life

Nightly changes to patterns of sleep need to be described, then compared with life events like food choice, work stress, or exercise before promising advice can be put together. Nature certainly knows whether what you’re doing works for you or not, and it renders this in your body as you get more and more cranky or, in the opposite direction, as you start to feel more energetic each morning.

The trick is uncovering enough pattern that a researcher or doctor (or app) could look at your data patterns and tell you what nature knows. Otherwise, you can get surprised by the ill effects of unrecognized bad sleep habits—and for those who care about such things, there’s an unfortunate irony to losing sleep over whether you sleep right.

As a data scientist, it is my view that these data patterns will hold the keys to how sleep is manifesting in our lives – affecting and affected by everything from metabolism to sex hormones to mental acuity. As a professional scientist who interfaces with citizen science, I also believe that to get from our hazy, dream-conception of good sleep to that clear image is going to require some changes in how we do science as a society.

Sleep, Studies and Citizen Science

It’s a lucky time to be in science. The limitations of lab science – limited space, ever-fewer government dollars per head – is complimented beautifully by the strengths of the age: an ever increasing availability of cheap, user-oriented sensor devices (and the data they generate), and ever-more virtual spaces for science-community interactions. Research that comes from such interactions is referred to as citizen science – the collaboration of non-professionals who are nonetheless involved in the process. And that drive to be involved – to share data, observations, and hypotheses with an interested community – is like strong coffee for the big data science behind good personal sleep coaching.

I have a dream job. But the total immersion of my life within the ivory walls can be a bit isolating. And that’s part of what citizen science is about: citizens contribute data and observations to professional scientists, but they also help guide the scientists toward new questions and better communication. All transitions have their rough bits, but for my part, I am very excited about coming down from the tower for the rest of my life.

I want more people to be as excited about sleep science as I am, and to feel empowered about it. In citizen science, I see the seed of a strong symbiosis: on the one hand you have people like me. I’m a government-funded scientist, so I think that (not always, but often) what I pursue should include “what do people I serve care about.” From talks or teaching or public engagements, I’ve been asked enough sleep and biological rhythm questions that researching answers could easily fill the rest of my life. But to provide that service, I also need some of those people to help out by letting me see what their sleep and biological rhythms look like. Then they get answers, come up with a new round of questions, and onward we all go.

That symbiosis requires trust and community building, and there will be infrastructures that have to evolve. The transformation of sleep science into a community enterprise is not going to happen overnight, but it’s already in progress. I encourage you to get in on my dream. Get myCircadianClock or take the online Munich Chronotype Questionnaire. Track your sleep with FitBits or smart watches. You’ll be surprised how many patterns emerge, and you’ll be in a position to share those experiences so others can learn from them too, if you want. But no pressure. Sleep on it.

Dr. Benjamin Smarr studies the temporal structures that biological systems make as they move through time. An NIH research fellow at UC Berkeley, his work focuses on understanding how physiological dynamics like sleep, circadian rhythms, and ovulatory cycles are shaped by the brain, and how disturbances to those cycles gives rise to disease. Dr. Smarr is also an advocate for scientific outreach, and routinely gives public lectures and visits K-12 classrooms to help promote the idea that by understanding the biology that guides us, we can live more empowered lives.