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Hits 3126 | Created 2008-11-11 | Modified 2008-11-11

An article about sleep that I wrote, re-found recently on my hard-drive.

To be awake is to be alive.
I have never yet met a man who was quite awake.
Henry Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

My mother tells me that I refused to sleep at all during my first two years, preferring instead to lie awake screaming. In desperation she took to sitting in a chair by my cot all through the night, catching a few minutes of sleep whenever she could. I often joke with people that this is the reason why I'm so tired in life now, and enjoy staying in bed long past the appearance of the sun - because I'm still catching up on lost sleep from my first two years.

Today I got around to calculating how much sleep I lost: Two years of sleep at eight hours a night would be 5840 hours, which is about 243 days. If were to then sleep nine hours a day, it would take me 648 days, or about one year and 10 months to catch up on the lost time.

Sadly, then, this doesn't seem to explain my love of sleep, as I should have caught up by the time I was four.

The Roman god of sleep was Somnos, who was also the father of 1000 sons. I find it fairly typical in an ironic world that the God of sleep is a man who barely finds the time to sleep at all. Far better would be a god who could never be shaken out of slumber in order to perform his godly duties - wake up Hypnos for Zeus' sake! You haven't been awake for three centuries! A god like this would be a tremendously popular deity, I would imagine, as in order to worship him, you would have to sleep for extraordinary lengths of time. I can imagine the argument between teenage children and their parents - but I'm not lazy, Dad, I'm simply worshipping Somnos.

Left to my own devices I tend to sleep about nine or ten hours a night, retiring at about two or three in the morning, and rising for mid-day. I find this agreeable, and a shame that the rest of the world doesn't agree with me. It is debatable though, if this sleeping schedule would be the same if 'my own devices' didn't include all night bars, alcohol, dancing girls and MTV. But then, even in the countryside, with little nocturnal entertainment, I tend to go to bed early and then read until three a.m. instead. I think I'm simply hard-wired to sleep later and longer than is normal.

But then, what is normal? The people who don't like to sleep love to tell anecdotes about people being locked in rooms where the light is on all the time for couple of weeks. Eventually they sleep less than eight hours and have a longer than 24 hour cycle - this, they tell me, is normal, implying that we already sleep too much. I find this an outrageous claim, if I was stuck in a room with the lights on for two weeks, I'd probably sleep less than eight hours too - who can sleep with the light on anyway?

Seriously though, this eight hours thing, where did it come from? Who decided, in their wisdom, that eight hours was enough? Why not call it nine, and then allow anyone who only sleeps eight an extra hour in the morning to play with their children, drink coffee and read the morning paper? The rest of us who prefer to worship Somnos that little bit harder, will be able to do so without incurring the disapproval of society in general. We would avoid the lazy-label.

I know that eight seems particularly apt because it is exactly a third of the day - a third for sleep, a third for work and a third for yourself. Not a terrible deal really, except that the eight hours you get for yourself is cut into by travel to and from work, and the extra hour for nine-hour sleepers, so, in the end, you get a ratio more like nine hours sleep, ten hours for work and five hours for yourself. By the time you've eaten, taken a shower and sat on your arse for half an hour you're already down to three. What can you do with three hours? Go back to bed, that's what I say.

I always imagined that the eight hour split was a recent invention, designed by the modern world to squeeze more business hours out of us, but I find that even in the mid 1700s it was the norm, as Sébastien Chamfort (1741 - 1794), a French man of letters reveals:

Life is a disease from which sleep gives us relief every sixteen hours. Sleep is a palliative, death is a remedy.

And for general evidence that sleep has been regarded as a kind of sin for a long, long time, we can go back to the Hitopadesa writings - Hindu texts from around 1,500 years ago which proclaim that in order to progress in life, one must avoid six things, these being sleep, sloth, fear, anger, laziness and prolixity.

Implicitly here then, sleep is a fault. I tend to disagree though. I think sleep should be celebrated, not as a return to the womb and a wish for intra-uterine life, as Freud would have put it, but as a heavenly gift. A brief period at the end of each day where all our troubles and cares cease to exist, where we can live out our fantasies, not have to answer to anybody, and even remember where we left our keys, waking up with a start in the middle of the night.

I could never put it any better than this:

Blessings light on him who first invented sleep! -- it covers a man all over, body and mind, like a cloak; it is meat to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, heat to the cold, and cold to the hot; it is the coin that can purchase all things; the balance that makes the shepherd equal with the king, the fool with the wise man.

Miguel Cervantes (1547 - 1616)

Cervantes does then go on to compare sleep to death, and the sleeper to a corpse, but you do get the impression that this man liked sleeping.

I'll leave you with my favourite sleeping story - that of Abraham De Moivre, a British mathematician. In his final years De Moivre was already sleeping for more than twenty hours a day, however, just before his death in 1754, he declared that in order to get enough sleep he now needed to sleep ten or fifteen minutes longer each night, than the night before. His sleeping time crept slowly towards 23 hours, and then passed it. On the day which he finally reached 24 hours, he died, in his sleep.

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