6 TED Talks That Will Change the Way You Think About Sleep

You may not fall asleep while watching a TED talk, but these videos will inspire and motivate you to improve the quality of your sleep.

Matt Walker deliver his "Sleep is your superpower" TED Talk

If you’re in the market for a dose of inspiration, TED is the place to turn. Since its launch as a small conference in 1984, the nonprofit burgeoned into a global community, featuring powerful “ideas worth spreading” offered in 3,400+ TED talks.

As the foundation’s mission states: “On TED.com, we're building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world's most inspired thinkers—and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other, both online and at TED events around the world, all year long.”

Whether it’s Brené Brown offering insights about vulnerability and courage, Sir Ken Robinson sharing his plan to rethink school as we know it, or Elizabeth Gilbert joking about inner genius, TED speakers offer powerful perspectives that are sure to expand your way of thinking.

TED talks span everything from activism to work-life balance, so it’s no surprise that plenty of them cover sleep since we all spend approximately one-third of our lives in slumber.

Below are six of our favorite speeches from professors, neuroscientists, and sleep evangelists who have done their homework on the topic of slumber. If you’re looking to improve your sleep, we recommend giving them a watch. And don’t worry about taking notes—we did that for you!

1. Matt Walker: “Sleep is your superpower”

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Sleep is your superpower

“The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.” How’s that for an adage?

By vehemently attacking sentiments such as “you can sleep when you’re dead,” Matthew Walker, Ph.D., doesn’t mince words or sugarcoat alarming health data. The bestselling author, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder and director of the university’s Center for Human Sleep Science instead makes the case that there is “a silent sleep-loss epidemic, and it's fast becoming one of the greatest public health challenges that we face in the 21st century.”

Throughout his two decades researching the impact of sleep on human brain function, Walker has learned that “alarmingly bad things happen” when we lose sleep.

Sleep deprivation, as he describes, essentially shuts down our brain’s “memory inbox,” in turn affecting our ability to learn and retain information. He goes on to explain that as we age, the amount of deep sleep we experience each night typically decreases; scientists now believe that this disruption in deep sleep can contribute to cognitive decline, memory decline, and perhaps even Alzheimer's disease.

To highlight the impact sleep has on cardiovascular health, Walker cites an eye-opening example tied to daylight saving time. Each spring, when we adjust the clocks and “lose” an hour of sleep, there’s a 24% global increase in heart attacks the following day; in contrast, when we “gain” an hour of sleep each fall, heart attacks decline by an average of 21%.

After talking the audience through several other disquieting examples of how sleep deprivation harms our brain, body, and immune system, Walker shifts gears—moving away from the doom-and-gloom health statistics to discuss the “wonderfully good things that happen when you get sleep.”

For starters, want to know the most effective ways to get better sleep? Walker believes it comes down to two best practices:

  • Regularity is king: Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time each day of the week and weekend. 
  • Keep it cool: A bedroom temperature of 65°F is optimal for most people. 

Walker concludes his 20-minute presentation by returning to the “sleep when you’re dead” maxim. He urges the audience to cast aside that outdated notion and recognize that being too busy to sleep has catastrophic effects on our health and wellness.

“I believe it is now time for us to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep and without embarrassment or that unfortunate stigma of laziness,” he says. “In doing so, we can be reunited with the most powerful elixir of life.”

Key Takeaway: “Sleep, unfortunately, is not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a nonnegotiable biological necessity. It is your life-support system, and it is Mother Nature's best effort yet at immortality.”

Explore Sleep Topics Addressed in This TED Talk:

2. Arianna Huffington: “How to succeed? Get more sleep”

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How to succeed? Get more sleep

On April 6, 2007, Arianna Huffington woke up in a pool of her own blood. Having fainted from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, she’d hit her head on her desk, broken her cheekbone, and required five stitches near her eye. The co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post and founder/CEO of Thrive Global recounts this frightening wake-up call in the opening of her TED talk.

Incorporating humor and pithy anecdotes, the author of “Thrive” and “The Sleep Revolution” keeps the audience laughing throughout much of her speech. Despite the chuckles, Huffington addresses a topic that’s anything but a laughing matter: our “hyper-connected 24/7” world is depriving us of the sleep we all so desperately need.

During the decade following her sleep-deprived collapse, Huffington met with numerous doctors, scientists, and other sleep experts to learn about the frightening health risks that burnout and exhaustion can spur. Huffington spoke with other high-achieving business professionals and—despite years of collectively using lack of sleep as a badge of honor—she ultimately reached a transformative conclusion: “The way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep.”

According to Huffington, we need a cultural shift, especially in the workplace, around how we think about sleep. We must stop thinking that “busy” is better and that sleeping more means we’re lazy.

In her speech, the sleep evangelist chides those who still use sleep deprivation as a form of “one-upmanship.” She adds that because men often think of a lack of sleep as a “virility symbol,” women will be charged with leading the movement toward prioritizing sleep.

“We women are going to lead the way in this new revolution, this new feminist issue,” she says, sparking room-wide laughter and applause. “We are literally going to sleep our way to the top—literally.”

Key Takeaway: “What is good for us on a personal level, what's going to bring more joy, gratitude, effectiveness in our lives and be the best for our own careers, is also what is best for the world. So, I urge you to shut your eyes and discover the great ideas that lie inside us—to shut your engines and discover the power of sleep. “

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3. Dan Gartenberg: “The brain benefits of deep sleep—and how to get more of it”

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The brain benefits of deep sleep—and how to get more of it

Before watching this speech in its entirety, skip ahead to the 04:55 mark, and have a listen. Hear that “pretty weird” swooshing sound? Dan Gartenberg believes that sound could help you experience better, deeper sleep.

In a nutshell, here’s how it works: The sound you hear mimics the burst frequency of your brain waves when your brain is in deep sleep. Based on his extensive research, Gartenberg found that exposing someone to this precise sound during deep sleep can prompt that individual to experience even more of these important and regenerative brain waves.

In his presentation, Gartenberg recounts how, after earning his Ph.D. in human factors and applied cognition, he began researching alternative methods to help our sleep-deprived nation. (As he points out, people in the US today currently sleep an average of one hour less than Americans did in the 1940s.)

He ultimately narrowed his focus to deep sleep, a stage he describes like this: “Deep sleep is how we convert all those interactions that we make during the day into our long-term memory and personalities. As we get older, we're more likely to lose these regenerative delta waves. So, in a way, deep sleep and delta waves are actually a marker for biological youth.”

Gartenberg laughingly recalls how he became a human guinea pig, testing out every new gizmo and gadget on the market himself, determined to track down a way to achieve deep sleep that was better and longer-lasting.

Around this time, he met Dr. Dmitry Gerashchenko from Harvard Medical School. Together, the two sleep scientists would ultimately create, test, and evaluate deep sleep-simulating technology.

Remember that sound you heard earlier? Their initial studies indicated that playing sounds during sleep primed individuals to extend the length of deep sleep. “We're continuing to develop the right sound environment and sleep habitat to improve people's sleep health,” Gartenberg says.

Key Takeaway: “What if you could make your sleep more efficient? Our sleep isn't as regenerative as it could be, but maybe one day soon, we could wear a small device and get more out of our sleep.”

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4. Russell Foster: “Why do we sleep?”

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Why do we sleep?

“If you're an average sort of person, 36% of your life will be spent asleep, which means that if you live to 90, then 32 years will have been spent entirely asleep,” says Russell Foster, Ph.D.

As the director of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology, the head of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, and a professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford, Foster thinks that, given how much of our life we spend sleeping, we should start giving sleep more thought.

In his presentation, he takes the audience back in time to when Shakespeare waxed poetic about the many virtues of slumber but then fast-forwards to the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher said, “Sleep is for wimps.”

In reference to this shifting perception of sleep, Foster remarks, “We've treated it as an enemy. At most now, I suppose, we tolerate the need for sleep, and at worst perhaps many of us think of sleep as an illness that needs some sort of a cure.”

After explaining the various reasons why we need sleep (to restore, to save energy, and to consolidate memories), Foster then details the specific dangers of sleep deprivation. One of the more frightening topics he covers is micro-sleeps, the short periods when we involuntarily fall asleep because our brain is so desperate for sleep. These micro-sleeps are associated with an average of 100,000 traffic accidents in the U.S. each year.

“At another level of terror, we dip into the tragic accidents at Chernobyl and with the space shuttle Challenger,” Foster points out. “And in the investigations that followed those disasters, poor judgment as a result of extended shift work and loss of vigilance and tiredness was attributed to a big chunk of those disasters.”

Having sufficiently alarmed his audience about the dangers of sleep deprivation, Foster then moves on to outline the various things we can do to improve the quality of our sleep—from making our bedroom temperature cooler to not brushing our teeth in the bright bathroom light right before bedtime.

In his concluding remarks, the neuroscientist urges listeners to take sleep seriously. After all, there’s perhaps no better—or simpler—way to boost concentration, social skills, creativity, and overall physical and mental health.

He wraps with a succinct directive borrowed from the fantasy writer Jim Butcher: "Sleep is God. Go worship."

Key Takeaway: “I think that sleep was once likened to an upgrade from economy to business class, you know, the equivalent of. It's not even an upgrade from economy to first class. The critical thing to realize is that if you don't sleep, you don't fly. Essentially, you never get there. And what's extraordinary about much of our society these days is that we are desperately sleep-deprived.”

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5. Jessa Gamble: “Our natural sleep cycle is nothing like what we do now”

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Our natural sleep cycle

In her brief but fascinating talk, the science writer explains that all living things have internal biological clocks that naturally react to changes in lightness and darkness. She offers the following example to explain how this plays out in animals: “If you take a horseshoe crab off the beach, and you fly it all the way across the continent, and you drop it into a sloped cage, it will scramble up the floor of the cage as the tide is rising on its home shores, and it'll skitter down again right as the water is receding thousands of miles away. It'll do this for weeks, until it kind of gradually loses the plot.”

Humans, it turns out, operate in much the same way. This has been tested and proven in various studies in which volunteers spent a couple months deep underground in a bunker, without a watch. Instead of sensing the day outside, the people slept and woke by way of their internal clocks.

Gamble then takes the audience back through history. As a species, humans evolved near the equator, so we were accustomed to 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Of course, that shifted as people spread out across the globe. But even up to the point of the industrial revolution, when we had very little artificial light, humans benefited from a quite different sleeping pattern. With our daily activities dictated by the rising and setting of the sun, we adjusted our lives to account for these natural rhythms.

Before modern technology, when our days and nights were ruled by little more than our natural biological clocks, how did we sleep? According to Gamble, people would sleep twice each night: we’d first rest between 8 p.m. and midnight; next we’d spend a couple meditative hours in bed; and then we’d return to sleep from 2 a.m. until the sun came up.

In recent studies in which people mimic that type of sleeping pattern, the findings are remarkable. “The people in these studies report feeling so awake during the daytime, that they realize they're experiencing true wakefulness for the first time in their lives,” Gamble says.

She believes that our natural body clock is the “most underrated force on our behavior.” As such, Gamble wonders if the introduction of things like modern technology, our 24/7 lifestyle, and jet lag are having a significant, potentially quite damaging effect on our natural sleep cycles. She doesn’t pass judgment, but instead concludes her presentation by leaving that question for the audience to ponder.

Key Takeaway: “We're living in a culture of jet lag, global travel, 24-hour business, shift work. And you know, our modern ways of doing things have their advantages, but I believe we should understand the costs.”

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6. Jeff Iliff: “One more reason to get a good night’s sleep”

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One more reason to get a good night’s sleep | Jeff Iliff

We know that when we sleep, it clears our minds. When we don’t sleep, our minds are left feeling befuddled. In his packed-full-of-scientific-facts talk, Jeff Iliff, Ph.D., explores this question: “Why is it that sleep, of all of our activities, has this incredible restorative function for the mind?”

The neuroscientist’s presentation gets incredibly technical, so we’ll leave the details to Iliff, but here’s the gist of it: Sleep is “part of the brain's solution to the problem of waste clearance.” How does this process work exactly? Iliff and other researchers found that when we sleep, our brain cells shrink. When this happens, there’s an increase in space between the cells, which opens the path for mental waste to be cleared out. This brain-cleansing process, which Iliff and his prior research team at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y. discovered, is referred to as the “glymphatic system.”

Why does this clearing-out process happen only when we sleep? As Iliff explains, “When the brain is awake and is at its most busy, it puts off clearing away the waste from the spaces between its cells until later. And then when it goes to sleep and doesn't have to be as busy, it shifts into a kind of cleaning mode to clear away the waste from the spaces between its cells, the waste that's accumulated throughout the day.”

When we don’t get adequate sleep, our brains aren’t able to “clean house,” which can result in a buildup of the amyloid-beta protein. Why does that matter? “A series of recent clinical studies suggest that among patients who haven't yet developed Alzheimer's disease, worsening sleep quality and sleep duration are associated with a greater amount of amyloid-beta building up in the brain,” Iliff notes.

In his concluding remarks, Iliff explains that without sleep, our brains don’t have the chance to do their required housekeeping, which can have dire consequences on both our minds and bodies. “Understanding these very basic housekeeping functions of the brain today may be critical for preventing and treating diseases of the mind tomorrow,” says Iliff.

Key Takeaway: “You and I, we go to sleep every single night, but our brains, they never rest. While our body is still and our mind is off walking in dreams somewhere, the elegant machinery of the brain is quietly hard at work cleaning and maintaining this unimaginably complex machine.”

Explore Sleep Topics Addressed in This TED Talk:

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