The No Wake Zone: Can’t sleep through the night? You’re not supposed to.

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Image by Queereaster, licensed under Creative Commons.

This article is one of several on reclaiming rest in all aspects of our lives. For more, read Get Radical. Get Some Rest., Give Us a Break, Breaking It to Your Boss, Want to Get Away, Stay Home, and Sleep Tips: Age Matters.

It’s 3 a.m. Your eyes snap wide open and stare unblinking into the darkness. The mysterious night noises of your home–pings, drips, rustles, hums, creaks–send electrical jolts through your nervous system. You are determined not to move, because that would mean you are irrevocably awake. So you lie very still and clamp your eyes tightly shut again, though they quiver in the effort to reopen.

Insomnia. Almost everybody has it at one time or another. Some poor souls live (or barely live) with it. It’s hard to know exactly how widespread it is: As many as 30 percent of the U.S. population, or as few as 9 percent, suffer from some form of it. Critics maintain that the higher estimates are overblown, partly by insomniacs themselves, for whom 10 minutes of being wide-eyed in bed feels like an hour, and by the pharma­ceutical industry (that all-purpose villain) in order to sell billions of dollars worth of sleeping potions.

Why we get insomnia, which parts of the brain are most implicated, how it actually hurts us, even what it is exactly, all remain largely a mystery, as does sleep itself. What’s undisputed is that sleep is as necessary to physical and mental health as air and water, and that, without it, we suffer–often severely. So, those annoying world-beaters who brag about needing only four hours of sleep a night are perhaps not being entirely candid. According to sleep expert Thomas Roth of the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders Center in Detroit, “The percentage of the population who need less than five hours of sleep per night, rounded to a whole number, is zero.”

Yet if a vast conspiracy were afoot to create an entire civilization of insomniacs, it would operate pretty much the way our society does now. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average working American now sleeps about six and a half hours a night–even fewer for ambitious careerists–down from eight hours a generation ago. Thanks to technology, particularly the Internet, there’s nothing you can do during the day that you can’t do at night. We can work, play, buy, gamble, and follow the latest news in Karachi, without stopping for a time-waster like sleep.

It turns out, though, that for well over a century we’ve been insulting our natural wake-sleep cycle by expecting to fall asleep precisely at 10 or 11 p.m., sleep solidly the entire night, and wake promptly at 6 or 7 a.m. There’s 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 a study conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health during the 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr and his 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 sleep pattern shifted dramatically. They didn’t sleep solidly for 8 or 10 or 14 hours, but first lay quietly in bed for 2 hours, then slept in two sessions of about 4 to 5 hours each, separated by 1 to 3 hours of calm, reflective wakefulness. Unlike insomniacs, who show elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, the subjects had 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 appears to have been the normal way human beings slept throughout preindustrial history, before the invention of electric light put an end to it. 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.” 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.

Midnight or early-morning insomnia is possibly more “natural” than the pattern of 8 hours of straight sleep we’ve come to expect, but often fail to achieve. Perhaps we ought to accept the reality of those hours awake and cultivate a better attitude toward the inevitable. According to some sleep researchers, lying quietly and peacefully awake can be as restful and restorative as sleep. And it’s undoubtedly true that expending much anxiety on insomnia just makes it worse.

Mary Sykes Wylie is a senior editor at Psychotherapy Networker, a bi-monthly magazine that promotes intellectual adventure and collective exchange in its field. This article was excerpted from the March-April 2008 issue;

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