No wake zone

My friend Val from Incurable called attention to this article from Utne Reader about sleep. An excerpt is here:

It turns out, though, that for well over a century we’ve been insulting our natural wake-sleep cycle by expecting to fall asleep precisely at 10 or 11 p.m., sleep solidly the entire night, and wake promptly at 6 or 7 a.m. There’s accumulating scientific and historical evidence that human beings, like many of our mammalian cousins, weren’t meant to follow what we consider a “normal” wake-sleep pattern of two strictly segregated blocks of time—16 uninterrupted hours awake, 8 uninterrupted hours asleep….

….This bimodal sleep pattern appears to have been the normal way human beings slept throughout preindustrial history, before the invention of electric light put an end to it. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, historian A. Roger Ekirch demonstrates, through a wealth of written evidence (diaries, philosophical treatises, religious tracts, plays, legal depositions, medical books, and the like), that before the 19th century, people in Western Europe frequently wrote of sleep intervals “as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration.” People might get up and do chores, smoke a pipe, engage in prayer or reading, converse, visit neighbors, make love, or simply lie there in contemplation and fantasy.

Midnight or early-morning insomnia is possibly more “natural” than the pattern of 8 hours of straight sleep we’ve come to expect, but often fail to achieve. Perhaps we ought to accept the reality of those hours awake and cultivate a better attitude toward the inevitable. According to some sleep researchers, lying quietly and peacefully awake can be as restful and restorative as sleep. And it’s undoubtedly true that expending much anxiety on insomnia just makes it worse.

My response to Val in comments (with a bit of editing) is here:

love that! it’s so good to reframe what this society likes to pathologize…the problem in waking in the night these days, I imagine is that people are over-scheduled and over-burdened so they don’t have time to take a nap or take it easy the next day! Or as the article points out we freak out making it impossible to simply relax in contemplation in the middle of the night.

Update: New article on same topic: Insomnia? Or is your body just asking to sleep like our ancestors did?


14 thoughts on “No wake zone

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  1. “normal isn’t necessarily the same as natural”

    I’ve been applying that to the concept of sense, as in common sense vs. natural sense. What you’ve been taught as the normal way of thinking about stuff vs. what seems right or true when you think from a calm, semi-detached position.

    It’s easier to stay sane when you try not to calibrate your sense of ‘sense’ (hee!) to the norm. I should remind myself of that more often. A lot more often.

    I mean, trying to calibrate my sleep schedule to the norm has been a disaster. This article is very validating!


  2. yeah Ana,
    while I was on multiple drugs my “natural” sleep cycle disappeared…but I have it back to some extent…I do stay up naturally until 2 or 3 and sleep until 10 or so…

    I wish I could nap…but I still have a bit of drug left in me and so I’m not quite back to where I can nap when I’m tired…

    hopefully that too will come…

    you were getting enough sleep…I’m not sure it’s a youth thing…it’s just a question of getting enough sleep in general I think…


  3. !!! thanks for the shout-out, G – see, I knew some good would come from me finally clearing out that old pile o’ magazines 😉 !!!
    But seriously, I think I lived my ideal schedule one summer when I was still in college – I worked an 11 AM – 9 PM shift (closing up the clinic would mean I commonly wouldn’t get through till 10 PM or later, putting me home around midnight). I could stay up reading or doing a few odd chores until 2 or 3 AM, then sleep until 9 or 10 AM the next morning.
    Then again, I was still in my early 20’s & probably a whole lot more resilient than I am now…


  4. Great article. I sleep at night because of Seroquel. Since I’ve started taking antidepressants the night person I was disappeared.
    I’ve seen many people claiming the same.

    “as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration.”

    It seems that we are far from understanding what “common knowledge” really means.


  5. the “normal”/”natural” distinction is a very good one that I’m going to remember…

    it’s the sort of distinction that really needs to be made a lot in our line of interests!!


  6. I have about the same sleep pattern as catherine. Unfortunately, I have to get up at 7 A.M., to be at work by 8 A.M. So, I need something of a nap during the day.

    Alternatively, I sometimes go to sleep at around 9 P.M., which makes me wake up all by myself at about 3 A.M. No alarm needed, I love that! And I escape dragging myself along the first hour or so at work, trying hard to wake up… It’s just that it is far from each and every evening, that I’m actually tired enough to go to sleep that early.

    BTW, thought of a thing: normal isn’t necessarily the same as natural. I guess, most people would say, my own sleep pattern for instance isn’t normal, and they’re probably right. That doesn’t mean it isn’t natural.


  7. I have never had a “normal” sleep cycle. My preferred sleeping times are from 2 or 3 A.M. until 8 or so with a nap in the middle of the day as needed; however, the the world does not accommodate me so I have to do my best to fit in with a routine. I also love sleeping for a few hours and then waking up in the middle of the night, but it distresses me when I am up for several hours because I know that when I am ready to fall asleep later it will be either time to wake up or I will not be allowed to take a nap.


  8. You would think this would be common sense – seems strange that this must be pointed out! Currently my sleep routine has been interrupted and I am getting a bit concerned about going psychotic but that’s a legitimate concern. I miss my 9-10 hours of sleep a night and my nap. I swear I’m a cat.


  9. i was anxious to comment, and didn’t read the whole thing yet….was gonna come back to it later….it’s late (imagine that?), and i’m up with lots of thoughts about the ‘mental health freedom act’…..something i’m gonna donate the entire month of febrary to…..

    even though i haven’t read the entire article (yet) i’m not surprised by the ‘norm’ being this way….

    although, i have read that “bipolar” is often an inability to get REM, and/or convert from serotonin to melatonin (may be some truth to some of it…..), and have experienced, and met others who experience very irregular sleep patterns of all kinds…..seems as thought it might be a more common-denominator than any other i’ve read about….

    i’ve come to believe that ‘delusions’ may just be sleeping with our eyes wide open….even the most “healthy” people alive see/hear/believe things in dream states….these dreams heal the mind and heart….they’re good for us….

    when they happen when someone is wide-awake, they scare people, and people over-react….want to shut the dream down….make it go away, and disappear……and, so they come in with drugs….lots of drugs….

    the problem is that with the massive amts of drugs….the REM sleep, and the healing that would otherwise come with dreams is gone….the healiing that comes from the dream is shut-down (you’ve written seveeral posts on this), although not quite word-for-word….in fact, yours were much better-written, and more fully-explained……

    i don’t know…who does for sure?
    i only believe that there are always answers, for each person…

    and the best in life….challenges are not always easy….but, who would really want to live without the opportunity to overcome them?

    that’s not what i “know”…it’s just what i “believe”….

    call me “crazy” (been called a whole-lot worse),



  10. well it seems to me according to this article the norm is disrupted periods of sleeping and napping…

    but yeah, I feel best when I stay up late and sleep late…

    by happiest days in terms of my body feeling good was when I worked in a restaurant/bar that closed at 2 am.

    I got home around 4 am and slept until about noon…it felt really good to me…and I was very healthy at that time both mentally and physically.

    of course I was very young when I had that schedule and I would never want to waitress again.


  11. Gianna,

    I remember reading in ‘Depression-Free Naturally’ (Joan Matthews Larson, PhD)….work with “bipolar” (can’t stand that term – which is why I use the quotations)….A “night owl”….led to recovery-story once someone went on a late-night shift (a why-fight it approach)….

    John F. Kennedy didn’t have a set time/schedule for work/sleep…He took short cat-naps, and/or long naps throughout the day/night….And, he was a pretty successful guy….

    We have biological clocks (rythms)….just because someone’s doesn’t meet “the norm”, doesn’t meant they can’t be successful!

    A little off subject….I don’t know if you’ve ever read much about ‘chaotic theory’….interestingly, I read about this several months ago….and found that some in Orthomolecular Medicine understood this theory….namely, that there is order in what we deem as “chaotic”….we haven’t the ability to magnify in physics to the point we can see it, and understand it (both outwardly in the universe, nor inwardly….in ourselves – a “universe” of sorts)….

    Sleep patterns may be one of the ways in which those of us who do not fit the “norm” are part of a larger perfection….found in the perfect design of what is all around us/inside us….part of who/what we are….

    I say “Thank God” for diversity….for people who are “different”….for the unique beauty that can only come from the many things outside and inside us that remain “phenomenons” and “mysteries”!!!




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