Taking Sleep Seriously

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%ย of US boys of high-school age. Some 40%ย of people in the United States report that their sleep is often insufficient, with 25%ย 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.

Joseph's Dream

Joseph’s Dream (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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195 Responses to Taking Sleep Seriously

  1. Josephus-Joppa says:

    Reblogged this on Moanin' at Midnight and commented:
    …I know I need to but, it’s just too easy…

  2. sindel17 says:

    What an interesting post. I’m a night worker myself and being so for the past year I’ve been increasingly interested in sleep. I find that when I am sleeping during the day if I wake up I can NOT look at my smart phone and go back to sleep. If I wake during the day I try to have little to no interactions with electronics until I’m ready to be awake for the duration. When I switch and am sleeping during the night I have no issues and am just relieved to be getting what seems like a more restful sleep.

    I enjoyed your post. Very informative.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      That’s so fascinating. It’s as if you know on some level you are supposed to be awake during the day, and that little glance at the smart phone is all the excuse your brain needs.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you liked it!

  3. Reblogged this on ladyberd.com and commented:
    This is a really important subject. Science is just now understanding the importance of sleep.

  4. mandysond says:

    Reblogged this on And What? and commented:
    Interesting.. I definitely have a problem with sleep.

  5. Jessica says:

    Sleep is such a fascinating topic. It’s funny to me that its one of the few things that’s good for you AND is enjoyable without requiring any kind of “acquired tastiness” and yet still most of us don’t make it a top priority. There’s something guilt-inducing about spending a lot of time doing something you enjoy when there are other things to be done, even if the former would be better for your performance in the long run!

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Wow–it does seem weird when you put it like that. I have two immediate responses, though I will have to ponder the issue more. First, although it is pleasurable, it is usually a bit of a low-level, quiet pleasure–even quieter than reading a good book. That makes it susceptible to being “drowned out” by more intense pleasures. Or second, perhaps it is indeed the lack of “acquired tastiness” (nice phrase!) that is the issue. As humans, we tend to value things more if we have to work for them. But sleep is just given to many of us, and so we take it for granted.

  6. PensAleas says:

    “Message: Take sleep seriously. Or die. In multiple ways.” I love it.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      There is nothing to love about dying in multiple ways. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Many thanks for the kind words!

  7. dtgsus says:


  8. modiodo says:

    Reblogged this on lowdramamama and commented:

  9. Pingback: Freshly Pressed blogs I like :) | damsel in dreamland

  10. This is really interesting. I never gave much thought about sleeping since i don’t want to make it one of my concerns. But that message is frightening.

  11. Pingback: Taking Sleep Seriously – dobetteralways

  12. Myaz_Nuggetz says:

    Reblogged this on Myaz_Nuggetz.

  13. A [sleep] doctor should read this.:-)

  14. I believe that 8 hours of sleep is to much. Big deal, who cares, but I have been trying to tweak my sleep habits. I knew that I was sleeping too deeply and I never dreamed anymore. I figured out a cure, I put in a pinch of chewing tobacco which keep’s me elevated. I suppose its a heart rate and mental elevation, I don’t know I just know it works. I awaken much more refreshed and I have very vivid dreams. Some might think the tobacco is gross, but I’m old and could care less. I’m not paying some quack to prescribe something.
    Interesting stuff. I’ll follow.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      An interesting cure. It sounds like something that would prevent you from sleeping deeply, but you report an opposite effect–and I don’t doubt your testimony. Would it work for others? I tend to think not, but that really doesn’t seem important either. What seems important to me is your willingness to take ownership of your sleep, experimenting with it.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  15. Having been on the night shift for most of my life, I totally get it. Thank you !

  16. Kenneth says:

    Did you ever take a look at lucid dreaming? In regards to what Plato apparently said.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      A lot of my students tend to think there are connections between Plato and lucid dreaming in regard to that passage. I have not explored it myself, mostly for the practical reason that it looks like lucid dreaming is one of those subjects that attracts some very smart people, and also some complete nut-jobs, and it would take time to sort those out. If you have found some reliable sources in regard to it, or at least some good links, please send them my way.

      • Kenneth says:

        The only real, and at least sufficiently credible, source of information I’ve found on the topic is http://www.lucidity.com/. Like you said, this is mostly unexplored terrain from a scientific point of view, making it hard to distinguish between rubbish and valuable insights.
        I think lucid dreaming may be a subject best understood experimenting alone, although I haven’t managed to put forth the discipline necessary to properly try it myself.

  17. Thank you for the very interesting post.
    I only sleep 6-7 hours a night without an alarm. I figure that is the amount of time my body wants.
    I also have a great saying I tell my ‘nappy’ friends, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

  18. sarabieventide says:

    The distinguished looking guy in the mustache must have forgotten about the lives of students. School all day, homework + job all night + trying to actually have a life= 4 hours of sleep per night. (and that’s a good night for me!). At least I can take solace in the fact that even when I am sleep deprived, my body maintains a 9-hour-per-night weekend sleeping schedule.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      I hear you–and I feel that way about a lot of health advice: I’ll get busy doing all of that immediately after I win the lottery and can retire.

  19. psyche23 says:

    Reblogged this on a blog by Patty Blanchfield and commented:
    As a chronic insomniac of some skill, it hurts me that my favorite pastime could be so harmful to me…. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Although it’s true that certain people can train their bodies to live on less sleep, I feel that depends entirely upon what KIND of sleep one is legitimately getting. Whether one is officially achieving REM, and how many sleep cycles they encounter before waking have a severe affect on the regenerative processes of their bodies, physically, mentally and psychologically. I feel we, whether aware of it or no, use sleep as a means to come to terms with whatever stresses and anxieties we have in life in a relatively “safe” manner – I say relatively, because we all of us, I’m sure, know the terrible affects from abruptly waking from a terrifically striking dream in a cold sweat. Could nixing artificial light in the form of cell phones, television and email – ie, objects which connect us to the world, our jobs and social life – aid us in a more restful and therefore truly regenerative sleep that heals us from all of our self-imposed anxieties? I mean… probably. But nothing short of Hermit status is going to help us kids and grandkids of TwentyThirteen. Whoops? ^.~

    I absolutely agree with this author that there are certain subjects where one chooses to laugh so as not to cry – the harmful affects of my chosen outlet of self-expression doubling as a self-mutilation tactic is simply marinating in irony. The “I’ll sleep when I die” idiom can act as a side-dish.

    I absolutely DISAGREE with his moniker of Plato as “primitive,” though. That just… that just hurts me as a Classics Major, haha. All jokes aside, it was a great read. ^_^

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Thanks for the reblog and adding your own commentary–this made it much more interesting than a normal reblog. I would expect nothing less from a Classics major. ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. mjaldon says:

    Thank you for reminding us that sleeping is so important.

  21. The idea that our dreams can be for someone else’s benefit was one that had never occurred to me. What an awesome new perspective! Now I don’t feel so bad about being such an avid snoozer. Thanks for a good read.

  22. poemattic says:

    I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Please check out the procedure for accepting the award. I enjoy your blog and wish you continued success.I look forward to reading your posts.

  23. sfoxwriting says:

    I really enjoy your blog and i just wish i could sleep half the time as i get maybe 4 hours a night if i am lucky.. sometimes its due to nervousness about something othertimes its completely random. hopefully the blog post ive linked below can help slightly for others on the nervousness part.
    Please check out my public speaking help guide


    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Wow–4 hours a night at best?!? I will officially stop complaining.

      • sfoxwriting says:

        Ive tried everything , in the end ive decided to use the time when i cant sleep to write new posts for my blog.. seems constructive enough ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. prettymissr says:

    Reblogged this on Remember an Inspiring Ocean and commented:
    “Take sleep seriously. Or die. In multiple ways.” – NOTED!

  25. modusgetar says:

    Reblogged this on Modus Getar and commented:
    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.

  26. markjohndunn says:

    ” I mock this, but only because the only real options are to laugh or cry ” or actually make some change – the past is the past and what’s done is done. Our culture is far too ignorant when it comes to things that don’t affect your health in immediate, easily noticable ways – ignoring it so they can ignore the deeper, personal reasons that motivate that behaviour.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      A fair point, but in regard to this particular issue, what change would you propose? Getting rid of electric lights? Or, at least, not being so infatuated with our little electronic devices?

      • markjohndunn says:

        Well there is no need for electric lighting provided you suit your routine to the cycle of the sun – getting up as the sun rises and going to sleep as close as you can to sunset.
        At the very least, to counteract the serotonin and melotonin suppression caused by artificial lighting (especially LEDs) make sure when you go to sleep it is absolutely pitch dark, and spend some time leading up to sleep in darkness or very low lighting – your body will start relaxing and preparing for sleep when it perceives the sun as setting or set i.e. low light
        and that’s without even getting into what you sleep on and all kinds of other factors

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