Sleeping on the Subway Is Not Particularly Restful, Reports the New York Times


Yesterday the New York Times posted a somewhat hilarious piece on something we deal with every day. That is…sleeping on the subway. Not that we do it, necessarily, but we certainly think about it, and see others trying it out, and stand up as much as possible en train so as to avoid the chance of it happening to us. We’ve even collected tips for falling asleep on the subway in the best possible way! Well, not to ruin your plans this evening, but your subway nap is probably not your best nap.

The Times spoke to Dr. Carl Bazil, director of the Epilepsy and Sleep Division at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, who experimented to see what stage subway sleepers had reached (the stages go from 1 to 5, with 1, in which eye movements slow, being “the least restorative”).

As Dr. Bazil watched the riders sitting across from him, the nappers’ eyelids fluttered when train doors opened. The riders also seemed to clench their messenger bags and backpacks with death grips.

“I suspect all you get is Stage 1 sleep; it’s not going to be restorative,” he said. “It’s kind of wasted sleep.”

Then Dr. Bazil studied the brain waves of Dr. Brandon Foreman as he attempted to nap on the A train (Foreman’s head was covered with wires attached to a small monitor — no scarier than your usual subway passenger):

By 6:18 p.m., two minutes after Dr. Foreman left the 168th Street station, he looked as if he was falling asleep. He first held his head up and kept his arms crossed. But he let his head nod back and forth slightly. Then his head fell, and he dozed until 59th Street — no doubt aided by the uninterrupted run from 125th Street. As the doors opened at 59th Street, Dr. Foreman jumped up and hopped off the train….

After downloading the data about Dr. Foreman’s brain waves, Dr. Bazil found that Dr. Foreman had slept for 10 minutes out of a 23.5-minute ride. For three and a half minutes, Dr. Foreman reached a Stage 2 level of sleep.

“It looks like it is definitely possible to get small amounts of restorative sleep on the subway, but only very small amounts,” Dr. Bazil said. He added that some studies show “even a brief nap that includes Stage 2 sleep can improve performance.”

Personally, we prefer the more traditional kind of sleep, you know, in a bed, with pillows and blankets and no total strangers next to us*. If you are going to nap on the subway, please be prepared (avoid lush workers!).

*Acquaintances are fine.