question of the weekend: Do you think you get enough good sleep?
I can across an article a while back that mentioned sleep as a “lifestyle” topic: you know, on a par with fashion and cooking and the like. And that notion initially struck me as silly. How could a basic biological function become a “lifestyle” issue. But then it occurred to me that our basic needs to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves have become fraught with other issues concerning how we should these things and what it means when we do these things in certain ways… and that these aren’t merely matters of class and status, as they were before the Industrial Revolution, but are also now wrapped up in concerns that have come about because of the Industrial Revolution. (Is it moral to wear clothing that was sewn in a sweatshop? How dangerous is high fructose corn syrup?)
You’re probably already familiar with the idea that artificial light was the first disruption of our natural sleep cycles, and that the disruption has gotten worse in our era of shift work, longer working hours for everyone, shops open 24 hours, the capability the Internet gives us to follow stock markets around the world or to do almost anything at any time… that kind of thing. A very long and very interesting piece on AlterNet by Mary Sykes Wylie titled “The High Price We Pay for Treating a Good Night’s Sleep Like It’s Optional” covers much of this, as well the subsequent development of a bevy of pharmaceuticals to treat the sleep disruptions that our culture forces upon us.
But then it comes to something I’ve never heard of before. (This excerpt seems kinda long, but the article itself is very long, so this really is a tiny percentage of it.)
[I]t turns out, we’ve long been insulting our natural wake-sleep cycle—for well over a century anyway—simply by expecting ourselves to fall asleep precisely at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., sleep solidly the entire night, and wake promptly at 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. There’s now accumulating scientific and historical evidence that human beings, like many of our mammalian cousins, weren’t meant to follow what we consider a “normal” wake-sleep pattern of two strictly segregated blocks of time—16 uninterrupted hours awake, 8 uninterrupted hours asleep.
In studies conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health during the ’90s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr and colleagues found that when research subjects were deprived of artificial light and restricted to a dark room for 14 hours a day (closely approximating the natural light-dark conditions of winter) for several weeks, their entire sleep pattern shifted dramatically. They didn’t sleep solidly for 8 or 10 or 14 hours, but first lay quietly in bed for two hours, then slept in two sessions of about four to five hours each, separated by one to three hours of calm, reflective, wakefulness. Instead of having the stress hormone cortisol streaming through their bodies—like insomniacs have when they can’t sleep—these subjects exhibited heightened levels of prolactin, the pituitary hormone that stimulates lactation in mothers and permits chickens to brood contentedly on their eggs, during their periods of nighttime wakefulness. Their brain-wave measurements at these times resembled a state of meditation.This bimodal sleep pattern now appears to have been the normal way human beings slept throughout preindustrial history, before the invention of electrical light put an end to it. It’s still the norm among some premodern tribes in Africa and Pakistan. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, historian A. Roger Ekirch demonstrates, through a wealth of written evidence (diaries, philosophical treatises, religious tracts, plays, legal depositions, medical books, and the like), that before the 19th century, people in Western Europe frequently wrote of sleep intervals “as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration.” During this time awake, people might get up and do chores, smoke a pipe, engage in prayer or reading, converse, visit neighbors, make love, or simply lie there in contemplation and fantasy. It was, by many accounts, an uncommonly peaceful, even pleasurable, time of night. Ekirch quotes 17th-century poet and moralist Francis Quarles, “Let the end of thy first sleep raise thee from repose: then hath thy body the best temper; then hath thy soule the least incumbrance; then no noyse shall disturbe thine ear; no object shall divert thine eye.”
I love learning new stuff and I can’t believe I’d never stumbled across this concept before. But it also startles me, because it suggests that we’re even more screwed up than I thought.
So, in light of all this: Do you think you get enough good sleep?
I know what I’ve learned for myself. I can either take enough time for the right amount of sleep (as well as the time to get enough exercise and eat right, the latter of which takes more time than not eating right), or I can get done all the work I have to do to not end up on the street (and even that’s iffy sometimes). I can’t do both. So most of the time, I’m running at full bore until I collapse, and then, while I don’t often have trouble falling asleep, in those minutes before I do drop off, I’m both exhausted and keyed up at the same time. I know this isn’t healthy, but it doesn’t really seem as if I have much choice.
(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)
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