“I grew up in a well-off, middle-class community,” he recalls. “Most people lived in modern Eichler Homes and had reel-to-reel tape recorders. But there was still a lot of unhappiness, and it occurred to me that their unhappiness was the result of poor decision-making.”
So at 12, Belenky set his sights on becoming a psychiatrist “because they can step in and make well-timed interventions.”
“Of course, it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that.”
Belenky did go on to become a psychiatrist, and has devoted the past five decades to helping people. But not in the traditional way he once imagined.
He studies sleep, and how lack of it can cause people to make poor decisions.
In 2004, he launched Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center.
During a recent interview, Belenky discussed naps, Donald Trump, and the afterlife.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Belenky: In the San Francisco Bay Area – Palo Alto.
S-R: Who were your heroes?
Belenky: The person I admired most was Cyrus Harding, the Union army engineer in Jules Verne’s “The Mysterious Island.” In fact, we named our third child Cyrus.
S-R: Were you a good student in high school?
Belenky: Not really. I had a 3.22 average.
S-R: Yet you were accepted at Yale?
Belenky: I had good recommendations.
S-R: What did you study?
Belenky: Experimental psychology. Then I went to Stanford Medical School.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Belenky: Bill Dement at Stanford, the father of sleep medicine in the U.S. and a wonderful person – still active in his mid-80s. Once, after we’d kept a cat awake 60 days by hand, somebody dropped the ball and the cat escaped. Bill was furious, and bellowed, “Take nothing for granted!” But he pronounced it “granite,” not “granted.” So I always say, “Take nothing for granite.” (laugh)
S-R: How did you see yourself spending your career?
Belenky: Seated beside a couch, helping patients navigate those times in their lives when decisions are really critical.
S-R: What happened?
Belenky: I had a military obligation – there was still a draft – and I could have done my two years as a general medical officer at an Army base. But I agreed to give them three years if I could have a research assignment. So they sent me to Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and I ended up staying 29 years, two months and 24 days. I’m one of the few military people who had one assignment their whole career.
S-R: What did you do at Walter Reed?
Belenky: Sleep research, like I’m doing now. And I discovered it’s directly related to my earlier idea of well-timed intervention. It turns out that those networks of the brain where important decisions are made dim and shrink with sleep loss. I was looking for one solution that works for everyone, and found it – sleep.
S-R: How so?
Belenky: It’s not uncommon to wrestle with a problem – you don’t know exactly what to do – and after seven or eight hours of sleep, you wake up and there’s the solution. Were you working on it while you were asleep? Probably not. But the brain is back to spec. It’s been tuned, toned.
S-R: When you retired from the Army, did you plan to continue your research?
Belenky: I hadn’t really thought it through. Then a colleague called and said WSU was creating a position that sounded like the perfect job for me.
S-R: Had you ever been to Spokane?
Belenky: No, but I grew up in California, so anything this side of Rapid City was fine with me.
S-R: What have you been doing at WSU since 2004?
Belenky: Pretty much the same thing I did in the Army – field research and laboratory studies on sleep performance.
S-R: How large is your staff?
Belenky: Before I stepped down as head of the SPRC two years ago, it was about 30 people. Now it’s basically three – a smaller group, but I get to do everything.
S-R: How has sleep research evolved during the past half-century?
Belenky: It’s remarkable how much it hasn’t changed. There’s been a lot of progress in the clinical arena. Back in the mid-’60s, nobody understood sleep apnea (a common disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or shallow breaths), and we’ve learned a great deal since. But we still don’t know what sleep does physiologically – how it restores performance. Humans exist in three states: waking, non-REM sleep and REM sleep. We lump two of these states together as sleep, but they are very different.
S-R: What do we know?
Belenky: During non-REM or slow-wave sleep, activity in the brain drops about 30 percent. That’s presumably when recuperation takes place, although we’re not sure how. One theory is that in non-REM sleep the brain shrinks and channels open up, allowing the brain to flush out waste. Then during REM sleep, most of the brain is at waking level – sometimes above waking level – and more waste is mobilized for the next flush.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Belenky: I like the intellectual challenge. Right now we’re studying how to organize things better so airline pilots get more sleep during ultra-long-range flights – longer than 16 hours. I also like doing my own statistical analysis. As Blanche Dubois said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Now I do all my own stats, and I’m fiercely pleased with this accomplishment. Most of all, though, I like working with young students. It’s so rewarding to see them make good decisions.
S-R: What about your career has surprised you?
Belenky: How unchangeable people’s personalities are.
S-R: Has your personality changed?
Belenky: I’m mellower – less edgy – but not a whole hell of a lot. Looking back, I wish I’d been kinder.
S-R: When someone walks by, can you tell if that person is sleep-deprived?
Belenky: No. It’s very easy for people to look good for a minute or two. But if you put them in a situation that requires sustained effort, you see the deficit.
S-R: Donald Trump and Martha Stewart both claim they get by on less than four hours of sleep a night. What do you think?
Belenky: Nobody can do that.
S-R: How much sleep do we need?
Belenky: Probably seven hours a night. The idea that primitive people slept more is probably not the case. Primitive people needed seven hours, and we need seven hours.
S-R: Is there such a thing as too much sleep?
Belenky: Usually people who sleep longer are recovering from a period when they weren’t getting enough.
S-R: When the CIA deprived prisoners of sleep for long periods in Iraq and Afghanistan, was that torture?
Belenky: Yes, it was. So was waterboarding. But physically, people actually survive both reasonably well.
S-R: What are the consequences of inadequate sleep?
Belenky: Poor decision-making, lapses in attention, metabolic dysregulation, weight gain, and a diminished ability to solve problems.
S-R: Is lying in bed the same as sleeping?
Belenky: No. Nor is meditating. Sleep is sleep, a quite distinct physiological state.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who has trouble falling asleep?
Belenky: First, be younger. As you get older, things don’t work as well, including sleep. At my age I’m terrible. Yet we still need the same amount.
S-R: Any other advice?
Belenky: Alcohol is a no-no, because it wears off. It may put you asleep, but you’ll wake up early.
S-R: What else?
Belenky: Caffeine has a rather long half-life, so you don’t want to be drinking coffee late in the day. Also, bright lights – especially blue – are stimulants that can make falling asleep difficult.
S-R: Are naps good or bad?
Belenky: Good. Short naps, appropriately timed, are a miracle. I have a cap that says, “Nap early. Nap often.”
S-R: Speaking of attire, tell me about your distinctive round glasses.
Belenky: They’re a fashion statement. (laugh) They go well with my long face. And my dark blue sports coat and faded jeans resemble the Union Army cavalry uniform. During the Gulf War, I was with the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment, so I’m spurred – I get to go to Fiddler’s Green, a part of Heaven reserved for artillerymen and cavalrymen. I have a piece of paper guaranteeing it!
This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at email@example.com
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