Dr. David Samson, an assistant professor in biological anthropology and recent addition to the department of anthropology at UTM, studies the link between human evolution and sleep. The Medium sat down with Samson to discuss his journey to academia, his research, and his advice for those lacking a good night’s sleep.
Growing up in Quebec and Indiana, Samson’s interest in anthropology began at a very early age. During his father’s twenty years of experience as a fundamentalist minister, Samson says his dad “was confronted by a prospective member of the church who was a geology graduate student. He asked him some hard-hitting questions about the age of the Earth and human evolution.” Samson recalls that his father “gave the stock answers that he had been trained to give,” but afterwards investigated the evolutionary claims.
Sparked by this moment, Samson’s father introduced his son to “thought experiments from Darwin’s Origins of Species,” and books from experts like Carl Sagan, an astrobiologist, astrophysicist, and astronomer, who talked a lot about human evolution. Through this, Samson got exposure to concepts like natural selection and evolutionary theory from childhood.
Although Samson never thought he would become a professor teaching the material, these memories stuck with him. “I went to college at Indiana University and I didn’t know what I would do in terms of my career. But I knew if I took anthropology at least I would be interested in the topic for the next four years,” he says “So it was completely organic, and there was no part of me that went into university thinking: I’m going to be a professor.” After his undergrad, he immediately shifted into graduate school, qualifying for a scholarship that gave an opportunity to unrepresented students, such as first-generation college students. From there he went on to publish an article in peer-reviewed scientific journal, which he said “steamrolled [him] into being a scientist.”
In 2013, Samson then got his Ph.D. and an assistant visiting professorship at the University Nevada in Las Vegas for a year. He then did a three-year post doc at Duke University and he says “that’s where I went from understanding how to do science to being a good scientist.” The skills he learned there helped him become a professor at UTM after being away from Canadian soil for 25 years.
In regards to his teaching skills, he says “It’s such a learned skill. You learn, you give bad lectures, you give un-engaging lectures, and then you are either comfortable with that or you are just like ‘I have to get better at this.’ I apply the scientific method to everything I do so I just started experimenting in my classes and coming up with hypothesises like ‘How can I engage them more in this.’”
Samson focuses his research on sleep’s role in evolution. His interest grew while studying great apes and their unique behaviour of building functional tree beds. “Anytime there is a universal behaviour that a clump of species has but no others, there’s usually some interesting evolutionary story behind that,” he explains.
His research brought him to Africa where he “climbed African sedimentary trees and quantified them to see what kind of ecology shaped the different properties of different beds.” In his pursuit, Samson also studied a group of orangutans at the Indianapolis Zoo to see how manipulating their sleeping environments changed their sleep physiology and linking that to their cognition.
This got Samson interested in working with humans.
From his research, he has found that “out of all the primates, humans sleep the least. We have the shortest sleep, but also the most high-quality sleep.” Studying sleep is very relevant as it has a host of downstream consequences. In fact, Samson says, “15 per cent of the population has experienced insomnia at some point in their life. It is a hyper-activation of the Hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis, [which] produces cortisol. In an evolutionary context, this makes perfect sense. If there is a lion stalking, and you hear a rustling in the environment, it pays to be hyper-vigilant.” Even though we are living in much safer environments, our amygdala stills “freaks out” and treats things, such as giving a presentation the next day, like life or death.
What does Samson recommend for undergraduate students struggling to have good sleep hygiene? He says, “You can hack your circadian biology pretty easily. You want to expose yourself to a lot of blue wave light during the day. So going outside and having lunch exposed to natural lighting and natural temperature will help amplify your circadian rhythm. At night, turn the lights low.”
He explains that being exposed to blue wave light at night can seriously inhibit melatonin production, “a principle hormone that is regulating sleep/wake activity, so you want to minimize that.”
Samson also suggests making your bedroom a “sleep-only room,” disassociating it with things like gaming, reading or watching TV. And an obvious piece of advice is to put away your phone, not just because of blue wave light, but also because social media can tap into your amygdala and make you unnecessarily angry at something.
Thankfully, if you’ve been out of sleep for a while don’t fret. Samson assures us that “we’ve got homeostatic rebound mechanisms set in place. There are some debts you can’t pay off but in general we can pay off sleep deprivation debt pretty good.” A trick that he offers his students when studying for an exam is to, “make sure to get at least one good night’s rest before the exam. This is because memory consolidation is one of the primary functions of sleep.”
He continues to explain that he’s able to instinctively tell when a student comes in blurry-eyed, and can usually call out “That’s going to be a bad grade because they are sleep deprived.”
“Even if they did ten hours of really high-quality studying, they pounded some energy drinks, some shots of espresso, if they didn’t consolidate that, they are killing themselves.” The best way to study is to do it right before bed and right after waking up. Samson says if you study right, you can, “cut the overall time in studying to a quarter. We are all tied to our circadian rhythm, there’s a peak cognitive performance [and] peak memorization. If you know how to study you can do it ten times more efficiently and just get so much more out of your life than nonstop studying.”