Hell's Bells, or A Rude Awakening

They do a cursed but crucial job. You will depend on one almost every day at school - two, if you are prudent. It will be your best friend and your worst enemy. Its failures--hopefully few and far between--will allow you a few more hours of blissful rest, but you will afterwards be plagued by irritated teachers, make-up work, and a delightful purple absence sheet.

Each morning your alarm clock will usher you into a day where you are likely to have two tests, to have a paper due, and to be about eight centuries behind the rest of the human race in physics comprehension. In short: a day in your life at Science and Math.

After many of us have spent at least a third of our somnolent summers in sound slumber, the morning of August 13 will find us bleary-eyed, stabbing at the "Off" buttons on our alarm clocks.

Should you not find yourself in this situation, you may have fallen victim to one of the inevitable mishaps inherent when dealing with alarm clocks. Fine motor control sometimes fails when operating such awkward, delicate machinery, especially under conditions of fatigue, sleepiness, or simple carelessness.

Or perhaps your failure was one of memory, as mine was on the first day of school last year. The first four classes of the year were a dream for me. Literally. I awoke, rested, in the middle of D block, thinking how bright it was for sometime before 7:30, and how odd that I had woken without the cacophony of my alarm. The human body is indeed a remarkable thing.

Five minutes later I was tearing down Hunt stairwell, ready to beg my teachers' forgiveness, hoping I hadn't made an indelible bad impression.

Fail-proof alarm clocks, with back-up batteries for power failures, multiple alarms, and emergency vehicle-caliber wails, have forced such difficult situations upon us since the 1876 introduction of the now archetypal mechanical alarm clock. Tardiness because of a failure to wake up is no longer excusable.

In a time where we advocate independence and self-reliance, where stress is rampant and kindness a luxury most don't seem to have time for, perhaps a return to a more forgiving, interdependent system is in order.

Let us investigate some options. In ancient times, people were known to use nails mounted in the sides of candles as a sort of alarm clock: when the candle burned down to where the nail protruded, the nail would fall into a pan below the apparatus, and the resulting noise would awaken the sleeper. And what if a wind were to blow the candle out? Clearly, being late in societies using this device was excusable.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, each town depended on a person called a Johnnie to climb the belfry and ring a bell or blow a horn at certain times during the day. To eliminate time, one had to but eliminate the Johnnie. A very simple system in which "killing time" takes on a whole new meaning.

Most ideal would be an adoption of the ancient Chinese belief that while we sleep our spirits journey outside our bodies, and if one is woken quickly, or by force, the spirit may not find its way back into the body. This would allow us to sleep until our bodies saw fit for us to awaken.

Fortunately, this is not one of the dangers of alarm clock use. However, the use of alarm clocks does perpetuate one particularly debilitating condition that is widespread in the NCSSM community: sleep deprivation.

NCSSM attracts some of the most ambitious students in the state. With this ambition comes a need for activity, which students satisfy by participating in a selection of the spectrum of clubs, programs, seminars, and sports. Classwork and a small social life, in addition to the extracurricular commitments, demands an enormous amount of time. Many students, myself included, choose to sacrifice sleep instead of any of these other activities.

To be healthy, adolescents need to sleep anywhere from eight and a half hours to nine hours and fifteen minutes. However, many of us find that we can function on five or six hours each night. Nor are we alone, for the average American adolescent gets six and a half hours of sleep per night. Whether we realize it or not, we suffer the consequences of sleep deprivation.

Sleep is necessary for our brains to work properly; sleep deprivation causes trouble with memory (both recall and memorization), creativity, concentration, and is one cause of the legitimate mental disorder daytime sleepiness.

"'Mental disorder' paired with the term 'daytime sleepiness'?" you ask. Right; you should not always be nodding off in math. Studies have shown that people who receive a healthy amount of sleep become fidgety, rather than sleepy, when faced with insipid lectures.

The language center of the brain actually shuts down after a night without sleep, and its function is mimicked (at reduced capacity, according to other studies) by a part of the frontal lobe of the brain. Sleep deprived test subjects perform lower on all types of reasoning and memory tests.

Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked with depression, and in a recent study, researchers observed spontaneous death in lab rats that were forcefully kept awake for a long period of time. Similar - albeit much shorter and less professional - experiments with my roommate last year resulted in an increase in disagreeability, irritability, and numerous expletives.

With that said, a correlation study of humans suggests that adults sleeping less than eight hours live longer than those who sleep longer, but longevity reduces drastically for those who sleep less than four hours or so. (Note: This may be a result of other factors of individuals leading lifestyles in which different amounts of sleep are necessary.)

Staying up late for several consecutive days can disrupt our circadian rhythm, our daily cycles of brain activity, by causing what is called phase delay. This has the same physiological effects as jet-lag experienced when travelling west (moving to earlier time zones). Alarm clocks can cause phase advances when you force yourself awake before your body and mind are ready.

Clearly, alarm clocks, while often convenient, may be hazardous to one's health, and if not properly used, to one's scholarly career. What does all of this mean to us, practically? Likely very little. As a student, I feel the necessity to forego some rest, spending that time in pursuit of knowledge of all types. I cannot bear to pass up an opportunity to interact with my peers, or to pursue the scholarly path, for the sake of a few minutes of rest quickly forgotten. Our waking hours are far more important, for they will be what we come to cherish as we look back on fond memories of NCSSM. It being summer, however, I confess I feel somewhat sleepy, so I fear I must retire. Good night.

Written July 26, 2002 for the welcome issue of Stentorian, my high school's newspaper