Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sleep and Philosophy

An interesting story on sleep the other day on NPR. We sleep differently now than we used to.

Psychiatrist Thomas Wehr has one consoling message for those who wake up at 2 a.m.: This is likely the way our ancestors slept.

"There are historical records of people sleeping in two bouts at night," Wehr explains. They called the first bout dead sleep, and the second bout was called morning sleep. The wakeful period in between was referred to as watch or watching...

He and his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health recruited 15 young, healthy adult volunteers. They went about their normal business during the day, then reported to a sleep lab in the early evening.

"We had our subjects go into the dark at 6 p.m., lie down and rest," Wehr says. The lights didn't come back on until 8 the next morning; it was a simulated winter day.

The sleep study found that the long night led to two bouts of concentrated sleep — with a wakeful period in the middle, lasting a few hours. The study was published in the American Journal of Physiology in 1993.

"You might think that lying awake for two hours would be a kind of torture," Wehr says. "But it wasn't at all." The people in the sleep study described it as a kind of quiescent, meditative state.

Researchers found similar results in a more recent study of adolescents. The longer night seems to give rise to a sort of "midnight comfort."
We still have the phrase "questions that come to you in the middle of the night" which refers to deep, philosophical issues. This makes sense if we are accustomed to a period of quiescent meditation in the middle of the night. There is a natural space to do our deep thinking undisturbed by the triviality and details of waking life.

Yet, now, because our technology and economic structure demand that we be up late and up early, we no longer have this period for contemplation. If we do awaken during the night, we label it insomnia and take medication to end it or fill it with bad reruns, infomercials, or web surfing.

We know that lack of sleep not only leads to decreased efficiency, but also to ill-health and weight gain. But are we also intellectually less fulfilled as a result? The next time I find someone sleeping through one of my philosophy classes, I may not be so worried.