Thomas Edison: “Sleep is a Waste of Time”

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Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph, a long-lasting incandescent light bulb, the kinetoscope, the dictaphone, an autographic printer and rechargeable batteries. He improved the telephone by inventing the carbon microphone. He was arguably the world’s greatest and most prolific inventor, with more than 1093 patents in the United States and 512 more patents in other countries. He was also a very successful manufacturer and businessman who marketed his inventions to the public.

Edison Believed That “Sleep is a Waste of Time”
In an interview published in Scientific American in 1889, Edison said that he considered sleep to be a waste of time and that he tried to sleep fewer than four hours a night. He took short naps on a bed in his laboratory. His lack of sleep, heavy cigar smoking, lack of exercise and unhealthful diet caused him to become markedly overweight and diabetic, and he died from heart failure in 1931 at the age of 84.

Edison’s development of the incandescent light bulb contributed to people staying awake at night and working night shifts, trends that have been associated with the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart attacks that are major causes of death in the United States today.

Edison believed that the human mind solves problems best just after a person wakes up from sleep. When he was working on a difficult problem, he would nap in his office armchair and hold a steel ball in his hand. When he would start to fall asleep, his arm muscles would relax and the ball would drop from his hands and land on the floor. This would wake him up and he would find that he had the solution to his problem. Salvador Dalí, the painter, also believed that interrupting the onset of sleep could make him more creative, and he held a heavy key rather than a metal ball. Now, more than 100 years later, a scientific study has shown that people can solve problems better just after they awake from a nap as long as they wake before they fall into deep sleep (Science Advances, Dec 8, 2021;7(50)).

The study was designed to test whether the best time to solve problems may be when you are in the transitional state just before you doze off, when you not awake but are not yet in a deep sleep. Those who napped and were interrupted during the first phase of sleep were three times more likely to solve problems than those who remained awake. This improved ability to solve problems occurred in people who spent just 15 seconds in the first sleep stage, but not after they had reached deep sleep later. The subjects rested in a chair in a dark room with their eyes closed for 20 minutes, holding onto a plastic bottle. An electroencephalogram measured their brain waves. They were told to report their thoughts when they dropped the bottle. The more repeats of the trial, the greater their ability to solve problems.

Sleep Problems and Risk for Diabetes and Dementia
The light bulb may have been a major contributor to our obesity epidemic by allowing us to work, rest and play day and night, which disturbs normal circadian rhythms to cause obesity and diabetes that can lead to heart attacks (Eur Heart J, Oct 21, 2021;42(40):4180-4188).
• Staying awake at night markedly increases risk for obesity (Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2011 Jul;14(4):402-12). Hunger is regulated by hormones in your hypothalamus: ghrelin makes hungry, while leptin makes you feel full. Lack of sleep disrupts the normal circadian rhythms of these hormones to make you eat more and gain weight.
• You should eat during the times of day when you are moving around, not at your bedtime. Staying awake at night increases risk for night-time eating, and not moving after eating can increase weight gain (Cell Metabolism, Oct 4, 2022;34(10):1442-1456). See Move Around Before and After You Eat

Sleep Problems Can Disrupt Your Life
It is common and normal for people occasionally to have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep at night, but if this occurs on a regular basis and interferes with functioning during the daylight hours, you need a medical evaluation to find the cause. Getting fewer than seven hours of sleep each night is associated with increased risk for heart attacks (J Am Coll Cardiol, Jan 2019;73(2):134-144), depression (Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 2008;10(3):329-336), weight gain (BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med, Oct 4, 2018;4(1):e000392) and diabetes (Am J of Physiol-Endocrin and Metab, Nov 7, 2018;315(5)). More than 30 percent of North Americans do not meet their needs for sleep (MMWR, 2016;65(6):137-41).

My Recommendations
If you go to bed at night and wake up each morning at the same times, get between 7- 9 hours of sleep each night, and you still have difficulty falling or staying asleep at night, try to:
• Exercise in the morning and relax in the evening to prepare yourself for sleep
• Expose yourself to some daylight and sunshine during the day
• Avoid napping during the day
• Follow the rules for an anti-inflammatory lifestyle

See Sleep Problems Can Be Harmful

Thomas Alva Edison
February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931