originally published May 20, 2013
One would assume that an activity one has been performing since the first day of one’s life should, at some point, become perfected. I have been practicing my sleeping skills for over 38 years now, and it turns out I’ve been doing it all wrong.
How could that be? How could something so simple elude me? Almost all of us are guilty of messing this up, according to research into historical sleep patterns. We’d like to claim dominance over our circadian rhythms – and ideally, we should – but the reality may be that the sleep patterns we have adopted as a culture are working against us.
Perhaps if we shifted our habits. Maybe if we tried pulling our eye-blinds to the nightly tune of segmented sleep.
According to historian A. Roger Ekirch, humans in western civilization used to live by the code of segmented sleep, right up until the Industrial Revolution came along and shook us by our sooty heels, messing up our rhythms. It might be a byproduct of our modern cultural norms and expectations, or it might just be the invention of the damn electric light bulb that has us defying what our bodies naturally desire. Let’s blame this one on Thomas Edison.
Segmented sleep is when we fall asleep, doze our way through a standard sleep cycle, then wake up for about an hour before doing it again. This is natural; the brain spews out a dose of the pituitary hormone prolactin during that hour of wakefulness, providing a medically groovy vibe and a feeling of peacefulness. Most of us, if we awaken in the middle of the night and experience just a slice of this, tend to dismiss it. We glance at our alarm clock, realize we have hours before we have to get up for work, do a little jig of joy in our brains before throwing ourselves back into gear and turning the wheel back toward immediate slumber.
But we should be savoring that hour.
Back when peasant farmers had to devote their entire day to working the fields, that hour between sleeps was their only time to have sex. Some used the time for praying – though I’d bet some folks were simply praying for the opportunity to have sex. Let’s face it, recreational activity options back then were limited. Others would head outside and commit crimes, writers would find inspiration to pour some words onto paper. Dreams tended to stand out more vividly than in the morning, so this was the ideal time for interpretation.
In medieval England they called the first chunk of snoozing ‘first sleep’ or ‘dead sleep’, and the second chunk ‘second sleep’ or ‘morning sleep’. The concept pops up in literature and poetry, providing proof that this was the norm all throughout Europe. Then along came the light bulb, and with it later hours of the day that we could all experience, thereby messing ourselves up forever.
If you want to treat your circadian rhythm properly, but don’t see yourself scheduling an hour of prayer, sex, or looking at cat gifs on Reddit in the middle of the night, and if you have one of the handful of jobs that will allow it, perhaps you can schedule a siesta into your afternoon. The siesta is a nap, usually taken shortly after lunch. Indulging yourself with a siesta may lower your risk of a heart attack. It also may not – there is conflicting research about this. But the siesta has been a standard in warmer climates for centuries. Sure, as the toastier parts of western Europe – Spain and Greece for example – find issues like urban sprawl and longer commutes messing up their routines, the art of the siesta appears to be in decline. But if you can find a way to pull it off, your body will thank you.
Maybe you can only squeeze in a power nap. That’s when you turn your lights out, but pop them back on before deep sleep hits. The term was coined by Cornell University social psychologist James Maas, and has been recommended as a fantastic way to kick-start one’s energy levels without sucking up too much time.
Salvador Dali apparently swore by the power nap. He would settle into a comfy armchair, holding a spoon in his hand over the side. He’d doze off, and the spoon would slip from his grip, landing with a clatter on a plate he’d placed on the floor, and jolting him awake. The trick is to bounce back into consciousness before stage three of the sleep cycle – otherwise you’ll be waking up groggy and disoriented. Somewhere between six and thirty minutes should be ideal.
A single 30-minute nap can improve brain function for up to 155 minutes afterward. Memory is sharper, concentration is more acute. Response time is more swift, and mood is consistently brighter. There is literally no down-side, unless you’re neurotic like me, and are likely to spend the first 27 minutes of your 30-minute nap time worrying about falling asleep quick enough to hit the right point of the sleep cycle before having to go back to work.
A nap will drain that feeling of information overload, which suggests that nap-time should perhaps not be limited to pre-school-age kids. Of course, allowing teenagers to power-nap at school could lead to increased instances of ill-timed morning wood. Maybe I’ll wait for further studies before I go ahead and endorse this initiative.
The key is finding a place at work, and either sacrificing half of one’s lunch hour or lucking out with a boss who will allow you an extra few minutes for a battery-recharging snooze. I have no such boss, and no such place either, unless I’m willing to curl up on a four-foot stack of paper boxes.
The caffeine nap is another alternative, in which you would slurp back a dose of caffeine before dozing off. One study used a driving simulator, and looked at the effects of a loud radio, a cold blast of air, a break with no nap, a nap on its own, a caffeine pill, a placebo, and a short nap preceded by caffeine on sleep-deprived subjects. Of all those factors, it was the last one – the power nap with a shot of caffeine first – that showed the most improvement in awareness, awakeness, and reaction time.
So turn off your computer, set your phone alarm and doze off for a while. If your boss complains, just tell him you’re doing it for his sake. For the company. Dammit, for humanity. And if you happen to wake up in the middle of the night, treat yourself to some sex before slipping back into the ether.
It’s how we’re wired, after all.