Sleepless Nights And Lighter Wallets: The Link Between Poverty And Sleep

Dec 6, 2015
Originally published on December 23, 2015 4:32 pm

What if you could never get a good night's rest? Some low-income people around the world face that challenge. A team of researchers is investigating whether sleep deprivation keeps some in poverty. (This piece originally aired on All Things Considered on Dec. 2, 2015.)

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How well did you sleep last night? If your answer is not great, chances are you're paying a price today. But what if you could never get a good night's rest? That's a challenge faced by millions of low-income people around the world. Now a team of researchers is trying to find out if sleep deprivation can actually keep people trapped in poverty. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports they're setting up an unusual experiment in the city of Chennai, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: It's 11 o'clock at night in a busy commercial section of the city. And all around me, people are sleeping in the open air. I walk past men curled up in the back of rickshaw wagons, entire families camped out in shelters made of cardboard and tarp. A woman in a blue sari smiles and waves for me to come over.

How are you? What is your name?

ANJALAI: My name is Anjalai.

AIZENMAN: Anjalai, who, like some in this part of India, goes by only one name, tells me she's got the most basic set-up, a patch of dirt by the side of the street.

And I see you sleep - you sleep here. You've got this woven blue mat. And do you have a pillow there? Is that a pillow?

ANJALAI: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: Yeah, she says. I ask her, what's it like to sleep in this spot? Her smile fades.

ANJALAI: (Through interpreter) It's difficult here. There's so much noise from vehicles coming through.

AIZENMAN: The traffic isn't the half of it. People have tapped the power lines to hook up televisions right on the street. Drunks keep wandering by.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: Loudest of all, the dogs.

(DOG BARKING)

AIZENMAN: And this scene, masses of people sleeping by the side of a noisy road, it's pretty typical across some of India's biggest cities. In fact, you see it in low-income countries around the world. But there is something that makes this street different because just a few steps from Anjalai's spot is the office of an unusual social science lab.

HEATHER SCHOFIELD: We call it the Behavioral Economics Research Lab. And it's, I guess, an informal collection of different studies.

AIZENMAN: That's Heather Schofield, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. She helped found the lab in Chennai five years ago as a kind of base camp for doing on-the-ground research on the root causes of poverty. And the more Schofield worked here, saw the people sleeping on the street, the more she started to wonder if one of those root causes of poverty might be sleep deprivation.

SCHOFIELD: What does that do to you? If you're at the level where you are that exhausted, how can you possibly function to be productive, to make good choices?

AIZENMAN: Lab studies suggest that getting too little sleep night after night can degrade many of your brain functions. It's harder to keep focus, to remember things, to solve math problems. But Schofield says not much is known about the real-world impact that chronic sleep deprivation could have on how people make decisions.

SCHOFIELD: Does it change your preference over having stuff now versus having things in the future? Does it change how risk-averse you are?

AIZENMAN: If so, she says, you might find it harder to resist buying drinks after work instead of saving your money. Or maybe being perpetually fatigued makes you avoid decisions altogether, things like figuring out how to get training for better paid work. When Schofield herself is tired...

SCHOFIELD: I often notice that I'll kind of put off choices that I know I should be making because I just don't have the mental energy to kind of handle them or deal with them in that moment when I'm very tired.

AIZENMAN: To find out if any of this is actually driving poverty, Schofield has been setting up an experiment. She's recruiting poor people from the neighborhood for tests. How quickly can they do a computer task? Will they agree to give up payment today in exchange for higher pay tomorrow? Will they join a savings program? And most importantly, does the outcome change if the participants get more sleep? But first, Schofield needs to find a way to improve the participants' sleep.

JANE MARLEN VON RABENAU: This is just a pillow. And...

AIZENMAN: A research associate, Jane Marlen von Rabenau, is showing me some sleep aids. We're at the lab's sleep study office. It's run out of a low-rise concrete building, just above a shop selling generators. Von Rabenau has been testing a whole bunch of items on the study's recruits.

VON RABENAU: We have an eye mask, earplugs, mosquito repellent.

AIZENMAN: They seem popular with some of the participants who drop by.

KRISHNAMURTHY: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: Krishnamurthy is a 38-year-old rickshaw driver. By day, he delivers sacks of vegetables loaded onto the back of a wagon attached to a tricycle.

KRISHNAMURTHY: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: At night, he says, he sleeps in the wagon. And he found the eye mask and ear plugs quite helpful.

KRISHNAMURTHY: (Through interpreter) Before, it would take me as long as two hours to fall asleep. But if I wear these things, in half an hour or even 15 minutes, I'm asleep.

AIZENMAN: But they did not work for everyone. So now the team is trying another option, naps. They've set up cots in the office.

VON RABENAU: It's a total of 12 beds right now with full mattresses.

AIZENMAN: Oh, yeah, it's very comfortable.

Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.