ORIENTED TO LIFE
Sleep as Nature Intended
About ten years ago, I read a fascinating book that changed my ideas about sleep. Since we are approaching the Winter Solstice and many life-forms are below ground or hibernating, I thought I’d tell you about human sleep in pre-industrial times.
The book is At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. It looks at night from every angle.
In our industrialized world, the idea is promoted that we should “sleep peacefully through the night” and if we don’t, there is something wrong and we need a sleep aid. Both drugs and natural remedies are sold to help us achieve this goal.
But, in fact, that we should sleep through the night is an industrial idea, maybe made up to sell more sleeping pills?
In pre-industrial times, the norm was what we now call “segmented sleep”—two periods of sleep with a period of being awake in between. Right now I’m writing this in the middle of the night. After sleeping a few hours, I just wake up and write while everyone else is sleeping. It’s quiet and peaceful at this hour and I can easily focus on what I’m writing. And then I go back to bed and sleep for a few more hours. It means I wake up later in the morning, but I’ve already done my work for the morning hours, so that’s OK.
Instead of trying to achieve an industrial myth, I now allow my body to determine it’s own natural pattern of sleep.
Here is an excerpt from At Day’s Close about segmented sleep:
There is every reason to believe that segmented sleep, such as many wild animals exhibit, had long been the natural pattern of our slumber before the modern age, with a provenance as old as humankind. As suggested by recent experience at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, the explanation likely rests in the darkness that enveloped premier families. In attempting to recreate the condition of “prehistoric” sleep, Dr, Thomas Wehr and his colleagues found that human subjects, deprived of artificial light at night over a span of several weeks, eventually exhibited a pattern of broken summer—one practically identical to that of preindustrial households. Without artificial light for up to fourteen hours each night, Wehr’s subject first lay awake in be for two hours, slept for four, awakened again for two or three hours of quiet rest and reflection, and fell back asleep for four hours before finally awakening for good. Significantly, the intervening period of “non-anxious wakefulness” possessed “an endocrinology all its own,” with visibly heightened levels of prolactin, a pituitary hormone best known for stimulating lactation in nursing mothers and for permitting chickens to brood contentedly atop eggs for long stretches of time. In fact, Wehr has likened this period of wakefulness to something approaching an altered state of consciousness, not unlike meditation.
I can vouch for an altered state of consciousness in the middle of the night. I keep a pen and pad of paper right next to my bed because I so often at this time have some of my best realizations.
It is of no small benefit on finding oneself in bed in the dark to go over again in the imagination the main outlines of the forms previously studied, or of other noteworthy things conceived by ingenious speculation
— Leonardo da Vinci
The author goes on to discuss “the enormous physiological impact of modern lighting on sleep,” on which there is wide agreement. This is well documented (but despite this, most people still follow the industrial practice of artificial light at night, including me. I haven’t worked that out yet. Somehow my body is otherwise attuned to the natural world, as a sleep segmented almost every night).
But more interesting to me was what pre-industrial people did while they were awake. Of course, they probably went to the bathroom, tended the fire, smoked tobacco, checked the time, enjoyed a hot drink, tend to children, do household chores, prayed, talked with bedfellows, (and lovemaking, of course).
All in all, this is a fascinating book about pre-industrial life. I’m not suggesting that we go backward to the ways of another time, but rather look at them and see what we can learn about how life was before we humans were industrialized, and see what we can learn that could be useful moving forward into a post-industrial future.