The Economics of Sleep

“I’m probably going to have to pull an all-nighter on Tuesday and then comes exams.”—Overheard in McLennan Library on the campus of McGill University

As final exams for the fall semester creep closer with every passing day, the Student Economist for this week will focus on the economics of sleep and why the act of sacrificing sleep for studying may not be the best decision.

Sleep is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “A condition of body and mind which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.” In this tranquil and (hopefully) restful nightly ritual, one’s body is given an opportunity to slow down and enter an anabolic state, strengthening numerous bodily functions including the immune, skeletal, muscular, endocrine, and nervous systems. Sleep is a behavioral state that is ubiquitous among most classes and groups of animals including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and many insects though average amount of sleep per session varies greatly between species.  Sloths in captivity and bats sleep up to 18 hours per day, the average human requires somewhere between 5 and 10 hours of sleep per day (eg. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and Tim Cooke, CEO of Apple both sleep an average of 7 hours per day), whereas giraffes (and president-elect Donald Trump) sleep an average of only 3-4 hours per day.

Though Albert Einstein famously stated that “time is an illusion,” time is a very important and precious commodity for most people within society from the 9-to-5 manufacturing shift worker to the investment banker working nearly 80 hours per week.  Often, when faced with the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day and there are many tasks to be accomplished, individuals decide to trade sleep time for time spent awake, working.

This decision, especially in the context of university studies in preparation for exams, brings some very harsh consequences.  There are three distinct brain processes involved in learning material of any certain subject matter: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Each of these three processes are severely hindered a lack or deficit of sleep.  Acquisition experiences the largest amount of negative effects stemming from sleep deprivation due to the process’ heavy reliance on focus and concentration in initially acquiring the information. Furthermore, the period of sleep following the initial intake (acquisition) of information is crucial for the process of consolidation.  Without adequate sleep, the amount of information consolidated declines significantly and the opportunity is lost.

So what can be done by students on North American university campuses, of whom 40% claim that they feel rested no more than two days per week? The answer is clear, students must learn more about their personal sleep characteristics (e.g. how much is needed, how will staying up late affect sleep rhythm and schedule, etc.) in addition to managing time and obligations well to fully take advantage of time spent while awake.  Through effective planning and personal management, students can ensure that they do not make the mistake of sacrificing needed sleep for lackluster learning.


John Butler

Woks Cited

[1] Oxford English Dictionary Entry: “sleep”

[2] National Sleep Foundation: What Happens When You Sleep?

[3] and statistics on sleep within the class Mammalia



[6] Walker MP, Stickgold R. Sleep-dependent Learning and Memory Consolidation. Neuron. 2004 Sep 30; 44(1): 121-33.

[7] American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment, Fall 2007 Report.

Picture titled, "Nightime Wanderers", taken on February 25, 2016, obtained through Creative Commons (