Science Explains Why You Should Never Fall Asleep With The TV On

by Dan Scotti

One of my all-time favorite Billy Joel records is off his 1980 classic, Glass Houses.

The title of the song is “Sleeping With The Television On,” and it tells the story of a woman, Diane, who Billy is apparently interested in, but -- because of his fear of rejection -- is too shy to approach.

Meanwhile, she doesn’t make life any easier for him, as her attitude is “Boy, don’t waste my time,” on behalf of her fear of commitment.

Consequently, the two never actually muster up the courage to meet and, as a result, find themselves sleeping with the television on.

I’ve always loved how Billy Joel uses “sleeping with the television on” as a symbol for loneliness. The idea of being too insecure to date, yet, at the same time, not wanting to be alone at night and using the white noise from the television for companionship seemed very authentic to me.

Especially being that ever since I was a little kid I, too, have slept with the television on. Although I wasn’t romantically forlorn as a young child, my mind had the habit of wandering as I lay there in a big, dark, room by myself.

So, I’d throw on some SportsCenter and let it run at a low volume in the background. Before long, I’d be asleep.

That said, over time, it developed into a habit -- a serious one, at that. By college, I absolutely had to have the television on in order for me to fall asleep.

My freshman year roommate, however, had to have absolute silence in order to turn in. As I’m sure you could imagine, that compromise was not the easiest one to meet in the middle for.

But, that’s the nature of sleep habits. Everyone is different. Some people need the television on -- others need silence. Some people need an extra blanket -- others need a cold pillow. There are sleep walkers and sleep talkers.

Regardless of what it might be, everyone’s got his or her own preference when it comes to sleeping.

Having said that, it appears some of these habits may not be as harmless as you might’ve thought, especially sleeping with the television on.

According to Diana Pilkington for Daily Mail, sleeping in front of the TV can lead to depression. As explained by Dr. Guy Meadows of The Sleep School, a clinic in West London, the dim light emitted from the screen of a television is not so healthy to sleep around.

“We're designed to sleep in the dark,” Dr. Meadows says. “When the sun comes up, the light receptors in the retina at the back of the eye tell us it's time to wake up by inhibiting the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy.”

Therefore, by sleeping with the television on, you might be preventing yourself from ever reaching a deep level of sleep. As you sleep, the light receptors in your eyes will still be able to pick up the dim light from the television, even as they’re shut.

This could lead to bad nights of sleep, which will almost inevitably result in poor moods for the rest of the day.

“Tiredness dampens down the effect of the pre-frontal cortex in the brain, which is responsible for more rational thought and causes us to use the part of the brain responsible for emotion called the amygdala,” Pilkington reports.

Therefore, sleep cycles and moods are very closely related.

There’s also a relationship between light and depression, which Tracy Bedrosian, a doctoral student studying neuroscience at Ohio State University, examines in a separate study.

In Bedrosian’s experiment, 16 hamsters were divided into groups of two and then exposed to bright lights for 16 hours of the day. For the next eight hours, half of the hamsters were exposed to “true darkness,” while the other half was exposed to dim lights, those that mimicked the effect of a television at night.

After eight weeks, the hamsters exposed to the dim light scored “significantly lower on a series of mood tests,” Bedrosian reported.

“The darkness-deprived hamsters drank 20 percent less sugar water than the other group, for example, suggesting they weren't getting the same enjoyment out of activities they used to find pleasurable,” writes Emily Sohn for Discovery News.

Additionally, the “depressed group” gave up sooner in the swimming portion of the experimentation.

After examining the brains of both groups of hamsters, a “major difference” between the groups revolved around a portion of the brain known as the hippocampus.

This type of decreased density in the hippocampus is also representative in people who experience clinical depression.

So, if you -- like Diane, Billy and myself -- have become prone to sleeping with the television on, it might be in your best interest to try and break this habit.

Then again, if you listen to Billy Joel, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.