Rethinking Sleep – Review

Brendan Monroe

From the New York Times: Rethinking sleep by David K. Randall

Mr. Randall states that we only started believing in 8-solid-hours-sleep in Western society, and only after the industrial revolution. Perhaps midday naps were unpopular to factory owners? There are other unhealthy sleeping habits connected to the industrialized world: think of shift work and night jobs.

But even today, in many societies naps are a way of life. In Spain, although in decline, people take a siesta after lunch, the main meal of the day. In China and other Asian countries, taking a powernap at your desk makes you seem motivated and effective, not lazy.

Further in the article, texts from historical records like Shakespeare are cited as proof that daytime sleeping was once common.

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.

Is it possible that our natural sleeping pattern is not simply ‘on’ at daytime and ‘off’ at night? To investigate, a dr. Wehr did an experiment where the subjects were not allowed to have artificial light, meaning they only had light when the sun was up. Apparently, at first subjects actually did sleep in an 8-9 hour stretch at night, perhaps due to habit. But after a  few days they started waking up in the middle of the night, after going to sleep very early in the evening. After the interval they went back to sleep until morning.

In my opinion, this kind of sleep pattern is pretty impossible to implement in a regular Western life. For most people, this would mean no social life or hobbies. I would be bored out of my mind. So if this kind of segmentation is not practical, can we use the principle and adapt it to modern life? One solution could be to take naps:

any deep sleep — whether in an eight-hour block or a 30-minute nap — primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately.

I find the information on naps here quite incomplete, and I would like to do more research. But it sounds very promising, and also a ‘cool’ way to get more sleep, instead of ‘going to bed early’.

The article ends with a short summary of the piece:

freeing ourselves from needlessly rigid and quite possibly outdated ideas about what constitutes a good night’s sleep might help put many of us to rest, in a healthy and productive, if not eight-hour long, block.

For more literature on sleep, see this post.

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