Culture of insomnia

I remember being 15, and everyone around me seemed obsessed with trying all these crazy sleep regimes. The idea was that you could minimize time spent in bed, by sleeping in shorter intervals dispersed throughout the day. One sleep-schedule called ‘the uberman’ was as especially revered as it advertised the possibility of sleeping only 2 hours a day by taking a 20-minute nap every 3.5 hours.

I seriously tried to acclimate to ‘the uberman’ at one point, only to give up three days later when I did not wake up from my nap and broke the schedule. However, despite my failures, I never really gave up on the possibility of ‘hacking’ sleep. If only I could get behind that initial adjustment period, I would be home free.

Of course there is no ‘hacking’ sleep. If there were a biological exploit that made it possible to achieve wakefulness for 22 hours a day, evolution would have made this the norm, not the expectation. That is so obvious that even my 15-year-old self should have seen it, but cannot wholeheartedly blame myself for this oversight. There is something that feels kind of ‘optional’ about sleep. Initially, it feels as if there is no cost at all to being slightly sleep deprived, hence it is very easy to get into the illusion that sleep is something you can brute force yourself out of.

But even if you got the willpower to bear the burden of perpetual fatigue, it would be about the most hazardous thing you could do to your health. Longterm sleep deprivation - no matter the schedule - carries increased risk of suicide, depression, all kinds of health problem and lest we forget memory and concentration deficit. Hence it really is a wonder that we view people that discard the urge as productive. Humans are, in fact, the only animal that will sleep deprive themselves without any significant advantage.
It is a great flaw in our culture that we distrust the instinct to get a full night sleep - perhaps our instincts in general.

Modern research suggests that sleep functions a lot like a ‘save’ button, that commits new memories too long term memory. That along with increasing focus, speed of learning and significant overall health benefits. There really is no excuse for not getting a full night of shut eye, but somehow we are still convinced that sleep deprivation is not a vice but a virtue. Some companies are so affected by the culture of sleep neglect, that they have started paying their employees more, if they go home and sleep.

I always get this shudder when I look at the great heads of the Easter Island, because it reminds me of how a society can meet its demise by the hands of its own cultural folly. The story goes that the palm trees that once covered the island were callously cut down by indigenous population to move the statues. With no trees to anchor the soil, fertile land eroded away resulting in poor crop yields, while a lack of wood meant islanders couldn’t build canoes to access fish. The resulting famine led to internecine warfare, cannibalism and ultimately self-destruction.

To be fair, the Easter islands’ ecocide’ has increasingly become controversial. Some anthropologist proposes the culprit was really the Polynesian rat, that feasted on the palm nuts and sapling trees, that resulted in the deforestation. Whether or not the Easter Islands falls into the category of cultural self-destruction, human history is littered with examples of death-cults or unhelpful superstition.

Our societal neglect of sleep is the deforestation of our time. It seems derived of a folly ideal that believes it more important to appear productive, then actually being so. One thing that I repeatedly learn from reading Nietzsche is to be suspicious of values and traditions instilled by society. One such value is that summarized in the old adage: I’ll sleep when I am dead. And it turns out that you soon will if you don’t get adequate sleep. There is a great need to break the culture of deliberate sleep deprivation – if we want to grasp our potential for longevity and intelligence. Paradoxically, as researchers increasingly unravel the importance of sufficient rest, there is another trend of deliberate sleep deprivation running parallel. A survey of teens reports that 15-year-olds sleeps, on average, one hour less than just 20 years ago. One researcher from Colombia University in New York comments:

“We found that a majority of adolescents after age 15 are not even meeting minimum requirements for adequate sleep,”

In our age of hyper-connectedness, we should place grave importance on guarding ourselves of corrupting values. Everyone knows that critical thinking is crucial, but we rarely subject the tenets of our culture to any scrutinization. This requires being alert and mindful of the forces that affect us. It necessitates living the focused life as Winifred Gallagher’ beautifully describes in her book; “Rapt”.

“Living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time…rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there.”