In another win for quantum theory, I was able to confirm that things do act differently when observed. That’s the only way to explain my recent, largely sleepless, night in a sleep lab.
As an erstwhile reporter on sleep and fatigue at HuffPost, I couldn’t turn down the offer from NYU Langone Medical Center to play the guinea pig at its Sleep Disorders Center in midtown Manhattan. For many of the sleep-deprived populations I write about — truck drivers, shift workers, veterans — a monitored night in a medical sleep lab is the gold standard for diagnosis. I wanted to find out what it’s like, and whether any sleep abnormalities lurked below my nap-happy surface.
I spent 9:00 PM on Tuesday to 6:00 AM on Wednesday mostly supine on a cold flat bed under constant video and audio surveillance. I was hooked up with 23 different sensors that would provide data on my breathing, limb movement, heart rate, and something called “jaw tone” over the course of the night.
The hooking up took about 30 minutes, but once I was situated in a mesh of wires, like a fly in a spiderweb, it was still over two hours till my midnight bedtime. Since I was effectively immobilized, I was at the mercy of whoever was in the control room that night. I know it’s valuable in modern adult culture to pursue activities that recall youth — like going “trampolining” and eating mushy vegetables — so if you’ve ever wanted to feel like an eight-month-old baby, you may want to look up sleep labs near you.
“Help,” I called into the ether.
A voice crackled in through wall-mounted speakers. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I said. “But I need someone to put Birdman into the DVD player.”
After two hours of critically acclaimed drama, I sort of slipped into a catatonic nap. I wouldn’t call it sleep. A technician came it at least twice to fix my wires. I say “at least” because I (probably) dreamed some of them, unless Edward Norton moonlights as a sleep lab technician.
I was woken up at 6:00 and hightailed it home to wash medical glue out of my hair before the live broadcast of my results to a captive Facebook Live audience.
When I returned to the facility three hours later, Dr. Alcibiades Rodriguez said I’d managed to get six hours of “sleep” in the books. My charts were exhaustively normal. I didn’t even snore. Slightly more interesting was the night-vision video of me in various fetal configurations, which was like a low-budget Warhol film.
“The good news is, you don’t have sleep apnea, or REM disorder, anything else, I think,” he told me. “The bad news is you may have slight insomnia.”
I reassured him that it was just the wires and the possibility of Edward Norton that kept me up.
Sleep lab testing is going to become more common as groups like New York transit workers receive mandatory sleep apnea screenings. But sleep studies have their limits. It was impossible for me, who wasn’t even an at-risk patient, to sleep at all normally in that setting. I imagine if I actually were experiencing symptoms, I’d be even more nervous.
Luckily, the symptoms that sleep labs test for, like pauses in breathing from sleep apnea, are fairly obvious, even in a tightly wound patient.
With my clean bill of sleep health, I was almost ready to leave when I realized the same nurse who had hooked me up the previous night was in the room again, 12 hours later. I knew she worked the night shift so I asked her if she had stayed up the whole night.
“No way,” she said. “I squeezed in a couple hours.”
I thought about her all day at work on Wednesday, when my lightly sleepless night in the lab had reduced me to an emoji-spewing troll on Slack. I couldn’t string a sentence together.
I asked her how many hours she typically sleeps in a day.
“About three,” she said.
Before I could interject, she went on, “Yeah, it’s ironic. Yeah, I know better. No, I can’t get a new job. I’ve been at this for twelve years. It’s working out fine. Not great, but fine.”