What we can learn from people who hardly need any sleep

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This story is part of an ongoing series on Exceptional Humans and the scientists studying them to help us all benefit from their superhuman abilities.

Jane Evans, a retired chemistry teacher who lives a few miles from Scranton, Pennsylvania, is from a family of short sleepers. She typically sleeps about five hours a night, after which she feels well-rested and ready to start her day.

Evans has always been a short-sleeper, just like her father, her siblings, and some of her extended family.

For the past few years, researchers at the University of California in San Francisco have been studying the family to understand why some people seem to thrive on so little sleep. They’re looking at families with many people who possess this trait, to track the genetic mutations that make their rest more efficient. The goal is to identify the chemical changes these mutations cause, so they can mimic the changes in ordinary people, helping us all sleep better and more efficiently.

Researchers have already found some genetic underpinnings. But in the process, they’re finding reasons to doubt some of our most basic ideas about sleep,  in particular, the idea that we all need 7-9 hours to stay healthy.

In episode one of our video series Exceptional Humans, we crisscross the US, spending a day with Evans in Pennsylvania, and then following her to San Francisco, where she and her sister visited a lab so researchers could monitor their brains as they slept. We get an inside view into cutting-edge research that’s challenging established wisdom on how much rest we all need, and see what it means for the future of a good night’s sleep.