I suffer from S.I.N.

June 21, 2011

A plea for understanding about a debilitating and embarrassing disease.

There is a plague sweeping through the academies of this land. Its symptoms are a lot like death.

This disease is indiscriminate. It can strike anyone from the fresh-faced grad student, to the ageing emeritus professor. From the lecturer to the Dean.

First the eyes glaze over. Then they begin to close, involuntarily. Then motor functions begins to fail. The head rolls forwards, and then snaps smartly upright, in a futile attempt to maintain control. Finally, the battle is lost, and the academic sits there, slumped in unconsciousness.

Then, 30-60 minutes later, the sufferer emerges blinking and disoriented from their coma, roused back to life by a polite smattering of applause and a muffled request for questions.

This disease is SEMINAR-INDUCED NARCOLEPSY (S.I.N.), and I am a sufferer.

Sleep is winning.

There is something about seminars that is conducive to sleep. A warm, dark room. Gentle and often barely audible monotone emanating from the speaker. Virtual anonymity. Everyone focused elsewhere. Occasionally extreme tedium.

Whilst seminar-induced narcolepsy does no long-term physical damage to the sufferer, it can be terribly embarrassing and cause severe mental anguish, particularly if you are asked to pass judgements on the seminar you supposedly just watched by colleagues, or worse still, the speaker themselves.

When this happens the paranoid S.I.N sufferer (worried that his secret is out) always suspects that his interrogator has spotted him dozing during the seminar and is trying to catch him out. What to do? Come clean and confess all? Or just bluff your way through? (“Nice westerns, nice and sharp”). Almost always the latter.

How to combat S.I.N.

Academics have attempted to counter the onset of S.I.N. with all manner of remedies. Caffeine is a popular choice. For someone dependant on caffeine (like myself and indeed most academics) the familiar, conditioned rush of caffeine coursing through your veins does little but relax you even further, hastening the decent to slumber. Even a double espresso.

Nicotine (still alarmingly popular among academics, despite the health risks) is also used. I cannot comment about the efficacy of this as I have been smoke-free for several slightly smug and self-satisfied years now.

Eating during a seminar can help, but noisily eating a bag of crisps at the front of a seminar is often frowned upon, and the resulting social stigmatization may be as bad as SIN itself. Egg sandwiches are also a no-no, due to their odorant properties.

The environment of the lecture theatre can also be adjusted to minimize S.I.N.ing. The room should be kept at a temperature just hovering above uncomfortably cold. Lights should be kept up unless dark images require otherwise.

The speaker themselves can do their best to keep the audience awake. The subject may be dry and technical, but an animated, enthusiastic and engaging speaker makes the S.I.N.er less likely to capitulate to the onset of sleep. Watching this video by Prof Stephen Curry might give you some pointers on how to put some vim in your presentation.

S.I.N.ing is not a sin

Very few of us S.I.N.ers want to S.I.N. We would be as annoyed/mortified as any other speaker if we found our peers dozing through an explanation of our hard-won results. We cannot help it. Family pressures, work pressure, life in general conspires against us and makes us sleep. Please do not be offended. We cannot help it.