The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Aug 6, 2010

Heavy Sleep

One autumn, a young woman arrived in IISc from Calcutta, and handed out questionnaires to various unsuspecting students she found lazing about the campus. It consisted of rather detailed queries on the respondent's mental health, all couched in rather bland prose, and suggesting multiple-choice answers. I was one of the unsuspecting students, and - as the young woman was rather pretty - was among the earliest to hand in my answers.

Pleased with my alacrity, she told me she was investigating the incidence of suicide in the more cut-throat academic institutions in the country.

"Whoa!" I said. "Suicide? You didn't say anything about suicide."

"Well, naturally," she said, impatiently. "You understand I didn't want to bias your responses."

As she was rather pretty, I overlooked this jibe. And I sat hopefully at the same table as her in the mess hall for the next few nights. She ignored me for the most part, except to hand back the questionnaire after she was done with it.

"You'll be glad to know you don't show any suicidal tendencies," she said.

"And you know that how?" I said, huffily.

"These first few questions are designed to detect those with depressive or self-destructive thoughts," she said.

"Well, that's good to know," I said. "Can you pass me the sambar?"

"But you are prone to stress," she continued. She didn't pass me the sambar.

"Eh, what?" I said. "How?"

"You sleep a lot as exams approach. That's a classic sign of stress. Some people get insomnia. Others don't get out of bed."

"Well," I said. "Now that you know me so well, how about we go for this concert?"

Her eyes glazed over, and she turned away, and I didn't see her again.

Still, her analysis turned out to be both topical and trenchant. During my four years on campus, at least 3 or 4 people committed suicide every year; this in a population of fewer than a thousand students.

In his book, Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life, Leonard Mlodinow talks about the stress of being in Caltech, the university with the highest suicide rate in the US. IISc and the IITs are not that different. Academic pressure is a terrible thing, particularly among the brighter and more ambitious scholars. If it is not the intense competition among them, it is the stress of finding oneself caught short, or the severe insecurity that stems from fear of exposure as a fraud, or as someone who has no right to be in that academic setting. Mlodinow himself had received a fellowship to Caltech that allowed him to do whatever he wanted, and he found himself petrified with fear. He could think of nothing he wanted to investigate. He thought he'd be exposed as an impostor. Were it not for the coincidence of Richard Feynman in the office next door to him who ended up mentoring him not only in science but also in an attitude to life, Mlodinow might have burned out, or collapsed, or quit, or, worst of all, killed himself.

Fortunately for me, I was more self-satisfied than ambitious, unlike those unfortunates who took their lives. The sleep restored me from the stress, and I somehow passed the exams. But that Bengali girl's diagnosis has stayed with me. To this day, when I am under some pressure or the other, I begin to feel horribly drowsy. You'd think that knowing the cause of the drowsiness would help to mitigate it. Not on your life.

This summer, as I said, I'm busy swotting away for the IMC. And I am feeling somnolent all the time. Until Friday the 13th, therefore, you'll only hear snoring noises coming from this part of town. So keep your voices down, people.


km said...

Noise-canceling headphones, my friend.

Just don't cancel out the sound of the alarm clock.

Sakura said...

That's really interesting. I tend to sleep a lot when I'm stressed. Except when I'm hyper-stressed then I can't sleep at all. Good luck with your exams!

Maddy said...

you did the wrong thing - suggesting the concert. outdated stuff man, you should have said Bollywood movie or something like that...maybe a rasa restaurant...

Fëanor said...

Maddy, dude, this was nearly 20 years ago - concerts were in, man!

milieu said...

Ditto for me, I prefer the early morning wake-up than the late nighters (or night-outs).
Your analysis probably holds true for me too, though I have to think more about it.
BTW, I am still very much in the academic life, though at the fag end of that journey, hopefully!

Fëanor said...

milieu: good luck! that's not to say that non-academic life is any less stressful!

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