Monday, October 1, 2012

Forty Winks

Yet another example of pounding the square peg of humanity into the round hole of industrial society:
One of the first signs that the emphasis on a straight eight-hour sleep had outlived its usefulness arose in the early 1990s, thanks to a history professor at Virginia Tech named A. Roger Ekirch, who spent hours investigating the history of the night and began to notice strange references to sleep. A character in the “Canterbury Tales,” for instance, decides to go back to bed after her “firste sleep.” A doctor in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for study and reflection. And one 16th-century French physician concluded that laborers were able to conceive more children because they waited until after their “first sleep” to make love. Professor Ekirch soon learned that he wasn’t the only one who was on to the historical existence of alternate sleep cycles. In a fluke of history, Thomas A. Wehr, a psychiatrist then working at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., was conducting an experiment in which subjects were deprived of artificial light. Without the illumination and distraction from light bulbs, televisions or computers, the subjects slept through the night, at least at first. But, after a while, Dr. Wehr noticed that subjects began to wake up a little after midnight, lie awake for a couple of hours, and then drift back to sleep again, in the same pattern of segmented sleep that Professor Ekirch saw referenced in historical records and early works of literature.

It seemed that, given a chance to be free of modern life, the body would naturally settle into a split sleep schedule. Subjects grew to like experiencing nighttime in a new way. Once they broke their conception of what form sleep should come in, they looked forward to the time in the middle of the night as a chance for deep thinking of all kinds, whether in the form of self-reflection, getting a jump on the next day or amorous activity. Most of us, however, do not treat middle-of-the-night awakenings as a sign of a normal, functioning brain. 

Doctors who peddle sleep aid products and call for more sleep may unintentionally reinforce the idea that there is something wrong or off-kilter about interrupted sleep cycles. Sleep anxiety is a common result: we know we should be getting a good night’s rest but imagine we are doing something wrong if we awaken in the middle of the night. Related worries turn many of us into insomniacs and incite many to reach for sleeping pills or sleep aids, which reinforces a cycle that the Harvard psychologist Daniel M. Wegner has called “the ironic processes of mental control.” 

As we lie in our beds thinking about the sleep we’re not getting, we diminish the chances of enjoying a peaceful night’s rest. 

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing adds:
I just had dinner with my friend Emily Hurson, a talented actor, singer and all-round hoopy frood. When I asked her about her longtime struggle with insomnia, she mentioned that her life was much better since she embraced second sleep, a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night. According to its proponents, this sleep pattern is the one that humans naturally fall into when they don't have electric lighting, and was common until a few hundred years ago. I've been reading up on it this morning and I'm intrigued. Emily sez, "I've embraced that not getting 8 hours of sleep in a row is okay. When I wake up in the night, sometimes for a few hours, I don't get frustrated or worried about a lack of sleep." Have any of you tried it? Discuss it in the comments. 
This is really rather obvious. Of course we would not have the rigid eight-hour schedules we live by today in the remote past. Even agricultural societies had more flexibility in how they structured their day. Just like sitting at a desk all day, this is not how we were meant to live.

Previously: The Wayback Machine

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