Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

A Good Night’s Sleep Is Hard to Find

Forget the recommended 7 to 8 hours of regular sleep. History has shown that inspiration and energy don’t come from the undisturbed hours we try to sandwich between bedtimes and alarms, but from their disruption.

Like animals and insects, humans originally slept in increments, with a few hours interrupting the “first sleep” and “second sleep,” wrote A. Roger Ekirch, historian and author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. That time was filled with praying, thinking, writing, sex, and discussion—activities our ancestors were too tired to do right before their initial sleep, but in “night-waking” would feel recharged and inspired, eventually drifting back into a second sleep after having a moment of peaceful stimulation.

Ekirch wrote that it’s likely people were deep in dreams right before waking up from the first sleep, “thereby affording fresh visions to absorb before returning to unconsciousness … their concentration complete.” Thomas Jefferson, for example, would read books on moral philosophy before bed so that he could “ruminate” on the subject between sleeps.

Those hours contain a sense of tranquility and natural rhythm that dispel distractions and inspire an optimal state of mind. “In the dead of night, drowsy brains can conjure up new ideas from the debris of dreams and apply them to our creative pursuits,” wrote Aeon magazine.

Psychiatrist Thomas Wehr of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health found that at night, the brain experiences hormonal changes that enhance creativity, altering the state of mind. The hormone, prolactin, contributes to the hallucinations we have in our sleep but continues to produce during the “quiet wakefulness” between sleeps.

But by the early 20th century, sleeping changed dramatically. Cue Thomas Edison, whose invention of the light bulb revolutionized and regularized sleeping schedules, eliminating segmented sleeping: The longer a house had lighting, the later a household would go to bed. Electricity had elbowed out night-waking, along with its valuable qualities. “By turning night into day,” wrote Ekirch, “modern technology has obstructed our oldest avenue to the human psyche, making us, to invoke the words of the 17th-century English playwright Thomas Middleton, ‘disannulled of our first sleep, and cheated of our dreams and fantasies.’” Wehr agreed, suggesting that current routines have not only changed our sleeping patterns, but also “might provide a physiological explanation for the observation that modern humans seem to have lost touch with the wellspring of myths and fantasies.”

Through a month-long experiment in the 1990s, Wehr discovered that segmented sleeping returns when we extinguish artificial light. His subjects had access to light 10 hours a day rather than the current, artificially extended 16. Wehr reported that in this cycle, “sleep episodes expanded and usually divided into two symmetrical bouts, several hours in duration, with a one- to three-hour interval between them.”

While experiments and history prove that segmented sleeping is natural, it can be quite difficult to master in the schedule-obsessed, appointment-filled modern lifestyle. But as the Industrial Revolution put an end to the creative spells that once punctuated slumber, Aeon wrote, the Digital Revolution has potential to sympathize with the segmented sleeper:

“If we can make time to wake in the night and ruminate with our prolactin-sloshed brains, we may also reconnect to the creativity and fantasies our forebears enjoyed when, as Ekirch notes, they ‘stirred from their first sleep to ponder a kaleidoscope of partially crystallized images, slightly blurred but otherwise vivid tableaus born of their dreams.’”

Image by Alex, licensed under Creative Commons.