Just when you think Western Civilization has enough problems, along comes someone to give you yet another reason to be worried. The time around our prophet of doom is Professor Charles A. Czeisler from Harvard Medical School, who informs us in his recent article in Nature that both children and adults in America are sleeping less and less. The culprit is not the Keurig machine, as devilishly alluring as it is. The culprit is artificial light.
And here I thought my sleep deprivation was attributable to my household’s potent combo of little boys.
No, apparently it is electric light that is the culprit; as the Professor writes, “The more we light up our lives, the less we sleep.” It not just the overhead lighting that is causing this, but all the light given off by our beloved little electronic gizmos like smart phones, tablets, and TVs. And lest one be tempted to rejoice in our new god-like ability to sleep only six hours instead of 8 or 10 or whatever, the Professor follows up his report on the declining number of hours that we tend to sleep with the following sober paragraph of what “sleep insufficiency” can do to us:
“The US Institute of Medicine estimates that between 50 million and 70 million people in the United States suffer adverse health and safety consequences from sleep disorders and sleep deficiency3, including greater risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and stroke. The obesity boom has triggered a parallel epidemic of obstructive sleep apnoea, which disrupts sleep (see ‘Heavy sleepers’, p. S8). Children become hyperactive rather than sleepy when they don’t get enough sleep, and have difficulty focusing attention, so sleep deficiency may be mistaken for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an increasingly common condition now diagnosed in 19% of US boys of high-school age. Some 40% of people in the United States report that their sleep is often insufficient, with 25% reporting difficulty concentrating owing to fatigue. The WHO has even added night-shift work to its list of known and probable carcinogens. And the death toll from driving while tired is second only to that caused by drink driving.”
Message: Take sleep seriously. Or die. In multiple ways.
I mock this, but only because the only real options are to laugh or cry. In the interests of a balanced presentation of the issue, I would point out that there have been outstanding humans in history who have been able to forego in great measure this biological requirement of sleep, but I would also admit that for most of us, the paragraph above is a realistic assessment of what going without will do to us.
No, I don’t want to disagree with all this medical science, especially when it comes from a distinguished-looking guy with a mustache. But I do want to submit that there is another possible sense of “taking sleep seriously” beyond just trying to get enough of it. One could also take sleep seriously in the sense of trying to make it a meaningful part of your life, perhaps even trying to accomplish something through it.
I know that sounds crazy. Like many of my crazy thoughts, I get it from Plato. Consider the following “bed-time ritual” proposed by Plato in Book IX of the Republic:
“I suppose that someone who is healthy and moderate with himself goes to sleep only after having done the following: First, he rouses his rational part and feasts it on fine arguments and speculations; second, he neither starves nor feasts his appetites, so that they will slumber and not disturb his best part with either their pleasure or their pain, but they’ll leave it alone, pure and by itself, to get on with its investigations, to yearn after and perceive something, it knows not what, whether it is past, present, or future; third, he soothes his spirited part in the same way, for example, by not falling asleep with his spirit still aroused after an outburst of anger. And when he has quieted these two parts and aroused the third, in which reasons resides, and so takes his rest, you know that it is then that he bests grasps the truth and that the visions that appear in his dreams are least lawless.” (trans. Grube)
Now the medical parts of that passage above are common sense. To put them in modern terms, Plato is advising you to stop gorging yourself on Chipotle while screaming in anger at your kids while watching a horror movie immediately prior to retiring for the evening. There goes my evening.
No, what is really interesting about that passage above is what Plato assumes: that you can still think a little bit while you are asleep and dreaming. You can conduct rational “investigations,” and “perceive something,” and in doing so you may not be bound by time in the normal way. You can even “grasp the truth” and have “visions” rather than nightmares.
Is this just the superstition of a primitive Greek dude? Consider that many great people have slept with journals next to them so that they would be able to immediately awake and record insights as they slept. Consider that even high school foreign language teachers sometimes advise their students to “try” to dream in the language they are studying together. Consider that in the Old Testament, God’s preferred mode of communication with his prophets was through dreams (Numbers 12:6).
But I am none of those things, you say. And I don’t want to think in my sleep, you say; I just want to escape my burdens for a bit.
There are two problems, though. First, you don’t know what you are. There is always a little mystery left, a little “gas left in the tank” as Rocky would say. And second, maybe with a more rational approach to sleep you might dream the insight that would enable you to escape your problems in a more stable way (more stable, at least, than drinking Jagermeister until you pass out). Or maybe, on a more serious note, you could have a dream or premonition that would be of help someone else. In the New Testament, for example, most of God’s communications to St. Joseph were evidently given with Jesus and Mary in mind. It isn’t always about you.
Sleep takes up about one third of your short life. Why give up on that time if you don’t have to? Why throw it away? Why not try the Platonic experiment of taking it seriously, treating it as something over which you may actually have a marginal measure of control? If you try and nothing happens, you have lost nothing.
If, however, you dream some winning lottery numbers, then I know of a blog that could use sponsorship.