Say Goodnight, 2006

With a grateful nod to Ann Althouse, I will commemorate New Year’s Eve with an 11-month-old New York Times column about sleep.  

Ever since I was a child, I have called myself an insomniac.  I’ve always envied those who could fall asleep “when my head hits the pillow.”  My insomnia is a sporadic visitor who won’t leave.  I will be unable to sleep for several nights in a row, interrupted by a night or two of recuperation, then more nights of insomnia, with the pattern repeating for several exhausting weeks. Then, without fanfare, it goes away and I sleep fine for awhile, but the problem always returns.  But during these phases, I always fall asleep when I don’t want to; when my wife and I start watching a DVD for example. Then I awaken.  I feel deeply rested, even if I’ve only slept 20 minutes. And I can’t fall back to sleep for hours.

I’ve tried so many things to deal with it.  Medication, a ban on caffiene after 2 o’clock, yoga-like meditation…. For years I went to sleep with all-news radio, particularly with announcers like Beach Rogers, who could describe a nightful of murder and mayhem in a voice that never strayed from calm rationality.  All in pursuit of the critical eight hours of altered consciousness we are said to need for our health and sanity.  

I figure there must be a Darwinian logic to insomnia.  It’s so common.  I’ve wondered if it has something to do with our ancestors’ need for vigilance against attacks from rival tribes or wild animals.  Maybe my vigilance hormone runs a little hot.

It turns out, according to University of Virginia history professor Roger Ekerch, that I’m misinformed.  Those eight solid hours we’re told we need and feel entitled to… didn’t used to be so solid:

In all likelihood, we have never slept so soundly. Yes, the length of a single night’s sleep has decreased over the years (upward of 30 percent of adults average six or fewer hours), but the quality of our sleep has improved significantly. And quality, not quantity, sleep researchers tell us, is more important to feeling well rested.

This is not to minimize the torment of insomnia over the course of a restless night. But for most of us, slumber is reasonably tranquil — especially when compared with what passed for a night’s rest before the modern era. Despite nostalgic notions about sleep in past centuries, threats to peaceful slumber lurked everywhere, from lice and noxious chamber pots to tempestuous weather.

Worst in this pre-penicillin age was sickness, especially such respiratory tract illnesses as influenza, pulmonary tuberculosis and asthma, all aggravated by bedding rife with mites. One 18th-century diarist recounts that asthma forced her husband to sleep in a chair for months, with “watchers” required to hold his head upright. Among the laboring poor, whose living conditions were horrendous, sleep deprivation was probably chronic, prompting many to nap at midday, much to the annoyance of their masters.

As if these maladies were not enough, we now also know that pre-industrial families commonly experienced a “broken” pattern of sleep, though few contemporaries regarded it in a pejorative light. Until the modern age, most households had two distinct intervals of slumber, known as “first” and “second” sleep, bridged by an hour or more of quiet wakefulness. Usually, people would retire between 9 and 10 o’clock only to stir past midnight to smoke a pipe, brew a tub of ale or even converse with a neighbor.

Others remained in bed to pray or make love. This time after the first sleep was praised as uniquely suited for sexual intimacy; rested couples have “more enjoyment” and “do it better,” as one 16th-century French doctor wrote. Often, people might simply have lain in bed ruminating on the meaning of a fresh dream, thereby permitting the conscious mind a window onto the human psyche that remains shuttered for those in the modern day too quick to awake and arise.

This should make you sleep a little better in 2007, no?  If you can manage to sleep through the night, it’s because you are thankfully free from foul odors and lice anxiety.  If you can’t, maybe it’s because you have some business to attend to, perhaps romantic, perhaps psychological, perhaps sacred.

It’s only due to the influence of light that we have “consolidated” our sleep, according to Ekerch’s column.  The light keeps us awake longer.  In pre-industrial times, we would succumb much earlier to a “first sleep,” and then arise from it in a complacent state caused by a rise in the hormone prolactin — the same hormone that “allows hens to sit happily upon their eggs for long periods.”

That’s contentment.

Ekerch cites Dr. Thomas Wehr, a sleep researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health as suggesting that “some common sleep disorders may be nothing more than sleep’s older, primal pattern trying to reassert itself — ‘breaking through,’ as Dr. Wehr has put it, into today’s ‘artificial world.'”

I resolve, therefore, to stop worrying about insomnia in 2007.  I sleep just fine. 

Happy New Year!


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