Maybe Trump Is Explained by His Disastrous Sleep Habits

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Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

At a campaign event in Colorado Springs on Tuesday, Donald Trump mocked Hillary Clinton’s physiological preparedness ahead of the third presidential debate. “You know what the debate prep is? It’s resting,” he said. “It’s lying down, going to sleep.”

Earlier on in the race, Trump trumpeted his sleeping style. “I have a great temperament for success,” he said at an event in Illinois last November. “You know, I’m not a big sleeper, I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.” This can be seen in the candidate’s predilection toward late-night tweetstorms, the kind that accuse Ted Cruz of voter fraud or hate on Megyn Kelly (in one epic case, he sent 30 tweets or retweets between roughly 2:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m, as reported by the Washington Post). It’s not necessarily that Trump is being productive during his late-night hours. Yale neurologist Daniel Barron calls it “Trump Syndrome”: “a ravenous late-night craving for stimulation that results in a sometimes sporadic, often slender sleep schedule.”

Yes, there is such a thing as a sleepless elite: Between 1 and 3 percent of the population are “short sleepers,” people with the odd genetic endowment of needing only a few hours of slumber a night, but who can still function well in their waking hours. But most people are not short-sleepers, and even the historically cited short-sleepers still slept. Thomas Edison only slept three or fours hours a night, though he did nap; Winston Churchill grabbed a handful of hours a night, but was religious about his afternoon snooze; Bill Clinton reportedly had four to six hours a night while he was in office. Later, Clinton would say that most of the mistakes that he made in his long political career came because he was “too tired,” and he told Jon Stewart that “sleep deprivation has a lot to do with some of the edginess of Washington today” and that “America would work better” if politicians were better-rested.

Trump is an extremist in performing masculinity, from bro-bonding over “Grab them by the p—y” to gloating about his testosterone levels with Dr. Oz. His sleep bragging is part of the same mentality. “It sets a precedent,” University of Southern California assistant professor Dr. Raj Dasgupta tells the Chicago Tribune. “If people feel they can work harder or achieve more by sleeping less, then they’re opening themselves up to sleep deprivation.” It’s the reinforcement of a cultural ill: A recent CDC report of more than 74,571 Americans found that 35 percent of respondents got less than seven hours of sleep a night, almost 30 percent got less than six, and 38 percent reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the past month, which is bonkers. Orfeu Buxton, a sleep researcher at Penn State, tells Science of Us that the macho American attitudes of sleep loss are anachronistic. “Being able to hold your liquor and still drive used to be cool, but that’s not a badge of honor anymore,” Buxton says, and you don’t hear much bragging about smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. “We’re still talking about how it makes you tougher if you sleep less. Drowsy driving is just as bad as drunk driving, and that cultural shift is lagging behind drinking and driving by a few decades.”

There’s reason to believe that Trump isn’t a short sleeper: Like Timothy Egan argues at the New York Times, Trump “shows all the scary symptoms of sleep deprivation.” You can see it in his impulsiveness, whether it’s retweeting bogus crime statistics and anti-Semitic images or taking the bait from Hillary in roaring about Alicia Machado. Experimental laboratory research finds that when randomly assigned people are sleep-deprived for just one night, they’re worse at recognizing whether faces look happy or sad, which speaks to a blunting of empathy, a quality that Trump is astoundingly short on. Similarly, one night’s sleep deprivation increased psychosis-like symptoms in healthy adults. A 2013 brain imaging study found that when people were sleep-deprived, the activity in the area of the brain associated with complex decision-making increased, while reward-center activity went up, leading to a preference for images showing burgers and doughnuts over apples and carrots. Again, Trump: “The Big Macs are great,” he told Anderson Cooper. “The Quarter Pounder. It’s great stuff.”

The dangers of sleep deprivation go on: more risk-taking, worse learning, and a penchant for seeking gains rather than reducing losses. REM sleep, which you only get into late in a standard seven-hour sleep cycle, has been shown to help process emotional memories. “In the absence of REM sleep, we have not really dealt with emotions,” says Buxton. “We need to get REM sleep to have appropriate emotion processing.”