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Episode Transcript

DUCKWORTH: That is so dumb. Who does that? 

DUBNER: I do it. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: How do you increase your powers of observation?

DUBNER: “The lady right behind us, what did she order?” “Grilled cheese?” And he’s like, “No.” 

Also: what happens when a good night’s sleep feels impossible?

DUCKWORTH: I could wake up on my own, but then it’s like three-thirty in the morning, and I’m like, “Shit. Now I’m alert and awake.”

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a challenge for you. You ready?

DUBNER: A challenge? Not a question?

DUCKWORTH:Well, it’s kind of a question, kind of a challenge.  

DUBNER: A “chestion.” A “quallenge.” 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, exactly. Now, you are where you are. You’re in a room you’ve been in before. 

DUBNER: Wait. “I am where I am.” Is this a Popeye challenge?

DUCKWORTH: That was just all preamble. Tell me three things about the room you’re in now that you didn’t notice before I asked you that question. 

DUBNER: Oh, this is a parlor game. 

DUCKWORTH: Almost literally a parlor game. Tell me about the parlor you’re in. 

DUBNER: Three things about the room I’m in that I haven’t noticed before, you said? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And where are you, by the way? 

DUBNER: I’m in a small room, in a rental house, outside of the city where I’ve been doing a lot of work since my recording setup in New York City is not very “Covalicious.” And I’d have to describe this room as nondescript — like super-nondescript. 

DUCKWORTH: So, what are three things? They don’t have to be good things, by the way. This is not a gratitude exercise. 

DUBNER: Okay. There are a couple of windows, and the windows have in them what I want to say are called “mullions,” but may also just be called window grids. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. They make them into crosses or squares. 

DUBNER: I hate them, and think they’re worthless. I think they’re this vestige of when you couldn’t make big window panes, and so you had little panes of glass and the mullions that would kind of hold it together. 

DUCKWORTH: And now they’re just a scourge. 

DUBNER: So, this room has mullions, which I’d never noticed before. I believe this room was used as an office by the previous owner, because there is a desk in it and almost nothing else. So, I do use the desk for my recording, but I did bring in some wood panels covered in fabric. 

DUCKWORTH: Sound-baffling. 

DUBNER: They’re sound-baffling, exactly. And they make it sound a little bit better. And they’re maybe six feet tall, but the thing that I notice now that I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t asked me is that they are a beautiful shade of blue. I remember when our sound engineer sent me the site, he said, “Choose a color, and we’ll get them shipped to you.” And the color that I chose — without thinking a whole lot about — when I look at it now, I realize it is a beautiful royal blue. It is, I believe, exactly the same color as the piping on my very first baseball uniform when I was in Little League, and when I was a kid, I loved baseball more than anything. And so, ever since then, I have loved this particular color of royal blue. And so, I do wonder now, looking at these baffles, if that’s the reason, subconsciously, why I chose it. And I would say the third thing I noticed about this room, other than the fact that my dog is now sitting on my desk, which is unusual — the other thing I notice is that the walls are totally bare. And that’s depressing. I think it’s maybe good for focusing when I’m interviewing someone, that I don’t have anything to distract me. But I do feel like I should at least put up, like, a Led Zeppelin poster. I mean, I hate Led Zeppelin, but something. But why are we playing this game? 

DUCKWORTH: That was a challenge-slash-question from Ellen Langer. 

DUBNER: I’ve heard you sing Ellen Langer’s praises, because she’s a mindfulness maven, or is it “mavenette”?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what the gender noun is for maven, but Ellen Langer is a professor at Harvard. I think she was the first woman to get tenure, actually, in the psychology department. And she has this idea of mindfulness that is all about noticing novelty in your situation that you can do intentionally, but you might not do by default. 

DUBNER: This is what you did to help you get over sugar in your coffee. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. 

DUBNER: I was so impressed with how you described that process and how it seemed to have been successful for you. Was it successful long-term, though? 

DUCKWORTH: I have to say, I’m kind of a no-sugar coffee person now. 

DUBNER: How much do you think the mindfulness exercise contributed to that? 

DUCKWORTH: You know, I tried all different tricks. I feel like this mindfulness set of questions: “Can I notice three things about the coffee I was drinking that I hadn’t noticed before?” And then I was like, “Oh, yeah, it smells really good. It’s got this caramel-y, toasty odor.” And then I was like, “Oh, it feels so warm between my hands when I cup the mug in this way.” And like, “What a beautiful color this is.” Those had nothing to do with sweetness. They brought my attention to things that I really like about coffee, and then enduringly appreciated. And I can’t say that I’m mindful every time I have my coffee, but now I have this perspective on coffee — it’s not just this sugary caffeine jolt. It’s more than that. So, yeah, I’m going to credit Ellen Langer with my slightly-healthier habit.

DUBNER: So, when you had me do this exercise right now for this little room that I’m using as a recording studio, what’s it get me? I’ve noticed three things about this room. I’ve become, quote, “mindful” in this certain way. Does it mean that I will now, maybe, crave sugar?

DUCKWORTH: I think the idea is that you could certainly appreciate certain things about it more. I mean, now you don’t like it as much because of the mullions and the lack of artwork. But it’s possible to have your attention brought to things that you’ve taken for granted or ignored.

DUBNER: One could also say, maybe by focusing on these things that I hadn’t before, two of which were negative, maybe I brought my attention to a thing, and now have inspired myself to actually address them and make it better. Right? Isn’t that a good function of mindfulness?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah! I think what’s so interesting about this whole mindfulness idea is, it’s kind of like the opposite of habit, which also gets a lot of attention in psychological science — more and more now, because there is a lot of research by Wendy Wood and Colin Camerer, and others, saying that habit is good. That so much of a healthy, sustainable life is putting things on autopilot that are beneficial for you in the long run. It is the opposite of Langer’s idea of mindfulness. 

DUBNER: So, the answer becomes, as is always the case, it depends. Right? It depends on the circumstances. It depends on the goals. And it may vary day to day based on what you’re trying to accomplish, who’s involved, and so on. There’s no one-size-fits-all for state of mind, plainly. Can you define, however, “mindfulness” in the Ellen Langerian way? When I first heard you use it, I was very confused, because I feel that that word has come to mean a variety of things to a variety of people. In some cases, mindfulness, I think, connotes a deep focus on something — like you’re talking about now. But in other cases, people use it to describe a total expulsion of thought — emptying your mind. So, what is mindfulness? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, like so many words, maybe like all words, there are different definitions, and that can lead to a lot of confusion.

DUBNER: I feel “quiche” is pretty tightly-defined.

DUCKWORTH: Pretty much know what it is. But certainly the kinds of things that psychologists study tend to be these things that you could define in different ways. So, there are some people who study mindfulness in a more meditative tradition. Ellen Langer would say that her definition differs from a definition of mindfulness rooted in extended, ritualistic, meditative practice that emphasizes the breath and has a tradition that emerges out of Buddhism and Eastern traditions. Hers is much more cognitive — you don’t have to have any focus on the breath. You don’t have to have extended ritualistic practice. You can, much more quickly, and without a whole lot of advanced skill, bring your attention to the present. Where they share common ground is, I think, most conceptions of mindfulness have at their core, awareness of the present, and a certain kind of nonjudgmental element. I always think of it as nonjudgmental awareness of the present. Now, you went right into a tirade on mullions. So that was a little judgey.

DUBNER: I wasn’t really very mindful. I was “mind-y.”

DUCKWORTH: In fact, you were very evaluative in all three of the things. You were like, “Thumbs up on the color blue, and thumbs down on mullions and bare walls.” 

DUBNER: Okay. So, first of all, I take your insult graciously. I have no problem being called judgy. It is true. But I do really appreciate your definition. You’re using the word to focus on things, different from what I might think of crudely as “emptying the mind.” I’ve read that a lot of people have a hard time meditating because they can’t, quote, “empty their mind of thought.” And I don’t mean to brag, but I can empty my mind so quickly and easily, — I don’t know, maybe it’s just a sign that I don’t have that much going on.

DUCKWORTH: What does that even mean, “I can empty my mind”?

DUBNER: I can’t remember where I came across this. I think it was someone who’s in the realm of mindfulness who said — as a way to kind of pitch the need for meditation —  I think he said something like, “The average modern human can’t sit and think about nothing for more than, whatever, X seconds.” So, as soon as I read that, I thought, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that was so difficult.” So, I said, “I’m going to do it.” And then, I just did it. And then, I said, “I’m going to double it.” And I doubled it. And then I tripled it!

DUCKWORTH: And during that time, you’re really not thinking about anything?

DUBNER: Yeah, look, maybe it’s my one superpower. I can empty my mind. But again, I think it’s a sign, probably, that there’s just not a very active —.

DUCKWORTH: There’s not much there.

DUBNER: Yeah, there’s nothing going on. That’s the downside. The upside is, I’m good at meditating, even though I don’t meditate all that often anymore. So, what about selective attention then, which I think of as sort of an opposite-ish version of mindfulness?

DUCKWORTH: Well, selective attention, in some ways, is a redundant term, because all attention is selective. In fact, that is the very nature of attention, that we need to privilege certain inputs in what we’re hearing, and what we’re seeing, and even in our bodily sensations. So, for example, a very popular mindfulness exercise is, like, now put your awareness in your feet. Before I said that, you were like “Feet? What feet?” And then you’re like, “Oh, yeah, my left toe is a little tingly today.” So, the idea is that our attention is limited, extremely so. And selectively, we focus on something, and we neglect everything else. And I know that sounds intuitive, but I think most people don’t appreciate how darn selective it is — we’re really filtering out almost everything. 

DUBNER: You know, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I think about. I think my appreciation for this may actually come from my dad. So, my dad was a newspaperman — not very good. My mother, who was not a newspaperwoman, was actually a much better writer than my dad, but she was just running a household with eight kids and blah, blah, blah. 

DUCKWORTH: Quote, “just.”

DUBNER: Yeah, exactly. But my dad loved being a writer, and I remember he taught me this game that I recognize now was more than just a game, but he called it “Powers of Observation.” We lived in the country, and there was a little village nearby. And we went into this diner in this little village, which happened to be the diner where everybody in my family worked except for me. All the older siblings over time worked there — cooking, or busing tables, or whatnot. There were no siblings around. And we sat down and he said, “All right, Stevie. I just want you to sit, and look around, and really take everything in. Just pay attention and really see what you’re looking at, and listen, okay?” I was probably seven, eight years old at the time. And he said, “I’m going to give you five minutes, just take it all in.” So, I don’t know where he’s going, just like I don’t know where it’s going when you tell me to look around a room like this. And then, after five minutes, he says, “Okay, close your eyes, and I’m going to ask you some questions.” So, he says, “Okay. The lady right behind us, what did she order?” I kind of guessed. Like, “Grilled cheese?” And he’s like, “No.” And so it went on and on like that. And he’d grill me on these facts, large and small. And when we first started this game, I was terrible. I had zero powers of observation. But within a few times of playing it, I figured it out. And I got persuaded that, whether it’s the mind, or the brain, or the memory, or my observational senses, that they really are like a muscle. I’ve been trying ever since that day, truly, to flex that muscle. And so maybe I’ve been practicing my own form of mindfulness all this time. 

DUCKWORTH: I think Ellen Langer would be very happy about this. And, I think, if anything, the moral of the story is that human attention is like a pinhole. And you can do with that insight what you want. But I think acknowledging how selective attention is is a good thing. 

DUBNER: Yeah, I think that’s a good way of putting it. The metaphor I always think about in this realm is what’s called “court awareness” in basketball. If you watch a great point guard, he or she will have an awareness of what all other nine people are doing, the speed at which they’re moving, the angle they’re heading, the history of the speed and angle of those nine people, as well as the circumstances of the game right now: what’s the score, whose leading, how much time, et cetera. And often, when I encounter someone who has a very, very, very, very narrow keyhole view of things, I get very uncomfortable, because I feel like it’s incumbent on all of us to try to develop some court awareness, try to have a sense of what’s going on around you and what other people are experiencing, going through. I think mindfulness is a component of that.

DUCKWORTH: My favorite essay, or least one of my favorite essays, is called “A Sense of Where You Are.” John McPhee was writing about how Bill Bradley, as a young basketball player at Princeton, was amazing. He was, I guess, the Steph Curry of his time. And John McPhee asked him, like, “How are you doing that?” And he’s like, “You have to have a sense of where you are.” And, yes, there are limits to attention. You can’t see everything at once. But I do think you can get better at directing your attention in ways that are good and intentional.

DUBNER: Right. Or it may end up easier to rent a cyborg or something, because we do have cognitive and physical limits. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen tries to help Angela solve her ongoing issue with insomnia.

DUBNER: We crammed a king-sized bed, because I didn’t want to be close to his hot — whatever. That didn’t come out right. 

DUBNER: “I don’t want to be close to my husband’s hot body.” 

*      *      *

DUBNER: So, Angela, you’re not a complainer, I would say. 

DUCKWORTH: Try not to be.

DUBNER: But you have mentioned a few times, both on this show and in casual conversation — maybe it’s not quite a complaint, but you do note that you don’t sleep well. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I sleep like shit. 

DUBNER: You’re right. That’s not a complaint, that’s just a curse. 

DUCKWORTH: Oo, I’m also trying not to curse. “I don’t sleep well,” put it that way.

DUBNER: Maybe if you slept more you’d curse less. Anyway, let’s get to the bottom of this. What would you say are the causes and consequences of your bad sleeping, and what can we do about it? 

DUCKWORTH: So, to me, the defining feature of a good night’s sleep is that you woke up on your own, well-rested. So, really, the question is, to me, how many days do I wake up refreshed and eager to get out of bed with a zip in my step compared to the opposite. 

DUBNER: So, how many days out of seven would you say that happens?  

DUCKWORTH: On average, over the last ten years of my life, maybe two. Probably closer to one, one-and-a-half. 

DUBNER: So, you’re saying that one-and-a-half out of seven days, on average, you wake up without aid of an alarm and feel ready to go? [Yeah.] Let’s look at the other five-and-a-half. What happens there?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I could wake up on my own, but then it’s like three-thirty in the morning, and I’m like, “Shit. Now, I’m alert and awake.” But I just know that if I stay awake then I’ll be devastatingly exhausted at nine in the morning. But I can’t really get back to sleep, I have lately tried the following with mixed results, which is: I have one of those old-fashioned Kindles — the one that’s not really like an iPad. 

DUBNER: What do you think Thomas Edison would say if you called a Kindle the “old-fashioned” Kindle. “That sounds pretty newfangled to me!” 

DUCKWORTH: It’s the kind that’s more like an Etch-A-Sketch than a computer — which I adore, because I’m trying not to have blue light, and I’m trying to deal with this problem, Stephen. So, I grab the Kindle. And I don’t want to wake up Jason, because he has trouble sleeping, too. I’m probably contributing to the problem. So, I silently grab my Kindle, and I turn it on, and I read. And sometimes after half-an-hour or so, I go to sleep, and that’s, to me actually, a decent night’s sleep — I only woke up once, and I read a little bit. But oftentimes, I was, like, reading, and reading, and reading — I’m still not sleeping. Or I do go back to sleep, but then I wake up again. 

DUBNER: And do you, on occasion, if you wake up fully in the middle of the night — do you just say, “Well, I have a lot of things I’d like to do, so I’m just going to stay awake now?” 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, I’ve tried that, too. Because I read this book when I was a teenager that my sister had on her shelf. I can picture it vividly. It had a forest-green cover with a Picasso painting of a woman sleeping. It was called, Why Some Must Sleep and Others Must Watch. The book was written by this Stanford sleep professor, and he tells the story of someone who woke up in the middle of the night at, like, two or something. He had gone to bed at 10, as usual. And for reasons unbeknownst to this person, he wakes up at two and he’s like, “Huh, that’s weird.” And he walks over to his writing desk, and he’s like, “Well, I’ll just do a little writing and reading, and surely I’ll fall asleep soon.” But he doesn’t. He just starts his day at two. He’s like, “But surely I’ll be exhausted tonight.” So, the next night comes, and he goes to bed at 10 as usual, and then he wakes up at two again. And essentially, if I remember the anecdote right, he more or less just lives a four-hour-a-night existence for the rest of his life. And the reason why I bring that up is because sometimes I remember that anecdote and I think, “Well, why don’t I just wake up at two and stay awake?” But in my experience, that’s just not sustainable. And I actually am, as sleep researchers, of course, would predict, just really tired after doing that for one or two nights. 

DUBNER: So, what shocks me is that the science of sleep, or at least the state of sleep research, is strong. There’s a lot of it going on, and you know —. 

DUCKWORTH: A lot of it good. 

DUBNER: And there are a lot of proven benefits to sleep: physiological, cognitive, et cetera, et cetera. So, considering that you are up on research generally, considering that you believe in the power of sleep, and considering that you’re really unhappy about your ability to sleep more, slash, better, I’m surprised that you haven’t been able to solve this more. And it makes me think that maybe this problem is much, much, much, much harder than all the experts think. 

DUCKWORTH: I think the sleep researchers know how hard the problem is, and they do — they recommend things. I’ve done all of them, Stephen. I have shades that completely darken the room. I also have an eye mask. I have earplugs that you recommended. I don’t always use them because they fall out.

DUBNER: Then you either have the wrong ones, or you’re not using them right, because the good ones never fall out. 

DUCKWORTH: I think I’m not using them right.

DUBNER: Are they Flents? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you told me to get that exact kind. 

DUBNER: Then you have to squish them really small. And then, put them in the ear and let them expand, and then sometimes you need, like, a corkscrew to get them out. They really stay in. 

DUCKWORTH: I think I’m not squishing them enough. 

DUBNER: Maybe your ears are too small. Maybe we should get you some ear surgery to make room for bigger earplugs. 

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s an excellent idea. Okay, but look, I don’t know that it’s a sound problem, because I’m on a quiet street that there aren’t a lot of cars on. So — handled the light thing. I don’t think I have a sound problem. Now there’s temperature, right? So, often when I wake up, I’m very warm. But we almost, literally, bought a new house in order to solve this problem. In our old house, it was a very small room into which we crammed a king-sized bed, because I didn’t want to be close to his hot — whatever. He’s a — that didn’t come out right. 

DUBNER: “I don’t want to be close to my husband’s hot body.” You just said it. It’s okay. “My husband’s body is so hot I don’t want to be anywhere near it.”  

DUCKWORTH: There’s so many ways you can complete that sentence. None of which in the way I meant it.

DUBNER: You know what he tells people. He says, “My wife is so cool, I can’t get any sleep.” 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Wait. No. I needed a king-sized bed, but we had to move, because, in this little bedroom in our old house where there was shoved a king-sized bed and all of our furniture, I figured that there wasn’t enough air circulation, and maybe that was the reason why we were getting hot. So, we bought a whole new house. 

DUBNER: You bought a new house in order to sleep better. 

DUCKWORTH: With a big bedroom, and zoned heating, and I have a chiliPAD.

DUBNER: I’m going to make a wild guess. I’m going to guess that for, like, the first two or three weeks in your new house, you believed that you were sleeping better. Is that true? 

DUCKWORTH: Um, no. I immediately started sleeping poorly, from go. And I was like, “Shit, I just bought this whole house to solve this problem.” Also, I have a weighted blanket. Also, I bought those sheets that are advertised as being developed for NASA that are supposed to regulate your body temperature. I believe that’s a total scam. But I have those sheets. 

DUBNER: You are such a great sleep-product customer.

DUCKWORTH: And wait! I have a humidifier — without a light. So, I’ve gotten humidity into the equation. I try not to be exposed to blue light toward the end of the day. I don’t drink caffeine after nine in the morning. I don’t drink alcohol at all. So, I just want to get credit for doing all of those things.  

DUBNER: What about the physical activity and exposure to daylight? Would you say did you notice any connection between a day when you’re not getting those and your sleep pattern? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh yeah, I do think it does affect me, but I’ll also just say, it can’t fully account for my sleep problems, because I do exercise nearly every day, in part because I know it can help me sleep better. And daylight is interesting, because there’s only so much control you have over that. But I do try to get more daylight, and I do think that’s a factor. So, when I’m not outside during the day — say, in the winter of a pandemic — and also, especially when I don’t exercise, my sleep is even worse. 

DUBNER: Now what about any mental aides? Do you do any version of counting sheep, et cetera? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that is so dumb. Who does that? 

DUBNER: I do it. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, well, it’s not that dumb. 

DUBNER: Shut you right up, didn’t it? Okay. I don’t count sheep, but I said “any version of counting sheep.” You’re going to make fun of me and/or laugh, and that’s fine. I’m willing to do it to help my friend. I recount my most recent round of golf. 

DUCKWORTH: God, that is really boring. 

DUBNER: Yup, exactly. But it doesn’t take that long. You know, there are 18 holes. I never get past, like, the fourth hole and I’m asleep. And I should also say, I’ve never had trouble sleeping, so I apologize for that. So, I was curious, what is it about that thought process that seems to work so well for me? Why is that such a good version of counting sheep for me? And I thought, is it because golf is something I enjoy? Is it because it’s something that is so different from sleeping — it’s this outdoor physical activity? What was it? And then, I decided to try some different things, and one that I’ve tried was cooking. And I just thought, imagine I went to the fridge, I pulled out a bunch of stuff that looks good, and I’m kind of concocting — what am I going to do? How am I going to do this? And then, I start to prepare the meal. And I swear, by the time — in my mind — I’m sauteeing the shallots, I’m out, I’m gone. 

DUCKWORTH: The shallots are going to burn. 

DUBNER: I don’t know if this kind of thing can be useful to you, but I would encourage you to at least consider it, because it does, for me, form what the sleep researchers talk about as that transition from the waking to the sleeping. It gets me over the bridge. Then, once I’m there, I do have the good fortune to stay there. But I am curious if you would consider trying some version of that bridge. 

DUCKWORTH: Like, a little mental exercise that’s not stressful, and it’s consuming enough to engage my attention. 

DUBNER: Exactly. And sequential. I guess that’s where the counting sheep idea comes from.

DUCKWORTH: Right. It has like: two comes after one, and three comes after two. 

DUBNER: It’s a process, or it’s a sequence, or an order of something. Maybe you could recall your favorite five scenes from Love Actually. 

DUCKWORTH: And then, I could do that every time. I mean, I do think that sometimes when I wake up at night, it is because, basically, I’m working. I’m in that alert stage of task-focused work attention, that’s probably the biggest thing about my lack of sleep.

DUBNER: Okay, so now we’re getting somewhere, Dr. Duckworth. 

DUCKWORTH: Mm. It’s not a room temperature problem, is it?

DUBNER: It may be a slightly larger problem to solve, but I think it may be a solvable problem. Look, you’re a pretty high achiever. You’ve achieved rather extraordinary academic and career blah, blah, blah. I also know, for a fact, that you interned in the Clinton White House. And I do know that the male Clinton, at least, was one of those “sleep is for suckers” people. 

DUCKWORTH: Like, “I don’t need more than X number of hours of sleep” type person. 

DUBNER: Yeah. And look, there is a long history of people like that. I think Margaret Thatcher was another one.  

DUCKWORTH: There are individual differences in sleep need, by the way. 

DUBNER: But very few humans need only four hours, right? 

DUCKWORTH: That is what sleep experts tell me. 

DUBNER: So, my question is, do you think that you kind of bought into that whole high-achiever “sleep is for suckers” idea, and that you think, you know, “I’ll have plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead, and I want to be productive and help people, et cetera, et cetera,” and that even though you’re not actually going to get up and write a paper at two in the morning, that your engine is just running so hot that you can’t cool it down, and you tell yourself that sleep is wasted time?

DUCKWORTH: Okay, my college admissions essay — I guess it was 1987, I was 17 years old. I remember distinctly that I wrote an essay about sleeping four hours a night. I calculated if I slept only four hours a night, and that I was awake four extra hours a night, how many extra years I would have in my life because of this habit. I wanted to say that when you’re asleep, you’re dead. And so, effectively, I was able to extend my life just by sleeping less every night. 

DUBNER: Although, that goes totally against the actual argument of sleep science, which says that the less you sleep, the sooner you die. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, well, not only was it 1987, but I was an ignorant 17-year-old. I would wake up at about six, but I would go to bed around two. I would watch the late-night TV, and then the late-late-night TV, and then I would just watch cable TV. And I didn’t sleep a lot. And I had a lot of energy. I do think I probably compensated for it — and didn’t mention this, by the way, in the admissions essay — with napping, because I often would take a nap after I got home from my cheerleading practice — or whatever I was doing — after school. So, probably I should have said that I was sleeping, you know, five hours a night.

DUBNER: Let’s just unpack your psyche a tiny bit more. Do you think there’s a chance that your still-extant inability to sleep through the night is connected to the habit, or pattern, that you built in your youth because you believed in the nobility of less sleep? 

DUCKWORTH: It’s possible. But here’s an insight that I only recently came to. And I don’t know how to make sense of it. So, very recently, my mom got twice vaccinated, and she was able to stay with us. And I have to tell you, in the two separate weeks that my mom has been in my house, I slept like a baby. 

DUBNER: Oh my goodness. 

DUCKWORTH: Right? Like, what? And why?

DUBNER: So, Teresa is your sleeping pill? We’re just going to call her Lady Ambien.

DUCKWORTH: I guess so. 

DUBNER: Okay, so if you had to logically understand or describe why you think that’s happening, would you say you somehow feel more secure with your mother in your home? Would you say you feel more cared for? Is there any logical cognitive connection you can make?

DUCKWORTH: When my mom is in my house, first of all, I feel like a daughter and not just a mom. You know, the other day she made me an egg, and then she asked me if I wanted soy sauce on it. And I was like, “Yes, please.” And then, I ate the egg that my mom made for me. And yeah, maybe there is a kind of softening of the shoulders. I don’t know. I only figured this out super-recently. I was like, “Holy shit. My mom is here and I’m sleeping well. What’s up with that?” 

DUBNER: You mentioned that your husband, Jason, also is not a great sleeper. Is Jason’s mom still alive and around? And does she ever sleep over?

DUCKWORTH: Sharon has not yet slept over at our house, although she’s also twice-vaccinated.

DUBNER: Ever? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think she has. It’s because she lives in her own apartment. 

DUBNER: In what city does she live? 

DUCKWORTH: She lives in our city. So, there would be no reason why she would have to sleep over. But my mom is in this nursing home, which is a little farther out. 

DUBNER: May I propose a small experiment, however? What if you have Jason’s mom over? Just say, “Hey, Sharon, let’s play some board games and cook big meals. You know, we’ve missed you. You’re vaccinated now. Come over.” 

DUCKWORTH: “I know you only live five blocks away, but it would be really great if you would just sleep over.” 

DUBNER: Exactly. And if Jason suddenly reverts to his unbroken eight or nine hours a night’s sleep, I think the answer is mom.

DUCKWORTH: The scientific acumen here is truly astounding. And I do think that would be a good testable hypothesis. And I will take it up at dinner tonight. 

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.

In discussing Ellen Langer’s research, Stephen wonders whether the Harvard psychologist could be referred to as a “mindfulness mavenette.” Most English nouns do not have grammatical gender — including the word “maven.” Occupations, however, have traditionally been the exception — actor/actress, headmaster/headmistress, host/hostess — but in recent years, many gendered labels have been phased out in lieu of gender-neutral, inclusive terminology. For example, New York Times style now indicates that writers should use “representative” over congressman and congresswoman, “police officer” rather than policeman or policewoman, and “letter carrier” instead of “mailman.”

Later, Angela references a book she remembers reading as a teenager called Why Some Must Sleep and Others Must Watch. Even though she remembered the color of the cover, the painting on the cover, and the placement on her sister’s shelf, she didn’t remember the correct title. The name of the book is actually Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep — a line from Act 3, Scene 2 of Hamlet. Its author is the famed sleep researcher William Dement, who died in 2020 at 100-years-old. The passage Angela mentions is about a colleague of Dement’s — B.Q. Morgan, who chaired Stanford’s Department of Germanic Languages. According to Dement, Morgan slept about six to eight hours a night until the age of 23, when he suddenly began sleeping just four— a pattern which, as Angela recalled, continued for the rest of his life. Unlike Angela, he was quite happy about it. In his retirement years, Morgan took up knitting. He told Dement that, quote, “Nearly every one of his many friends owned at least one afghan that had been produced entirely before sunrise.”

Finally, Stephen and Angela wonder where the idea of counting sheep comes from and guess that it must have something to do with a calming effect of sequential patterns. Some experts believe that the concept may have to do with a tallying system used by shepherds in Ancient Britain and that its monotony is supposed to lull you to sleep. But it doesn’t appear to be as effective as Stephen’s mental golfing or cooking. A 2002 study from Oxford University found that visualizations of tranquil scenes did help insomniacs fall asleep an average of 20 minutes faster, but members of the study actually took longer to fall asleep when they were told to count sheep.

That’s it for the fact-check.

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, James Foster, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

*      *      *

DUBNER: I do think about the mind a lot. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s when your mind isn’t completely empty. 

DUBNER: I didn’t say my mind is necessarily empty. I said there’s just not much going on. It’s like if you have to clean up the kitchen, but all you did was made a sandwich.   

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Sources

  • Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California.
  • Colin Camerer, professor of behavioral economics at the California Institute of Technology.
  • William Dement, professor of sleep science and medicine at Stanford University.

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