In the early nineties 15 volunteers walked into a research facility in Maryland. It was the middle of winter, with darkness enveloping the area by 5.30pm, and light not fully returning until 9am the following day.
The head of research, Wehr, was investigating the seasonal impact on sleep and depression.
For the next thirty days his volunteers would report to the clinic at 5pm, they would have blood samples taken, and receive a full medical exam, before sent off to their respective bed chambers. By 5.30pm they would be in bed, where they were instructed to remain until 9am the following morning (except for toilet breaks). They could sleep, or they could rest, but they had to remain in bed. In darkness and silence.
For the first two weeks most of the volunteers slept a continuous 11 hours. This was attributed to sleep debt, a condition well known amongst sleep researchers. Most of us, in our fast-paced lifestyles, are chronically sleep deprived. Each night we skip sleep in favour of socialising, work, or recreational activities, and over time, that debt accumulates.
Once they had paid off their sleep debt, all volunteers fell into a more unexpected sleep cycle. The results surprised everyone and had never before been observed in humans.
It would take them on average two hours to fall asleep. They would then spend some four hours in slow-wave sleep, the stuff that is essential to our feeling of alertness, and if we miss out on, spend the following day walking around in a zombied haze. After the slow-wave sleep, they would then awaken and spend several hours conscious, but deeply relaxed. Finally they would return to slumber this time including REM sleep, before awakening the next morning.
Curiously none of the volunteers complained of boredom. They found the entire study deeply pleasant, even their long hours between sleep cycles. During the day they reported seeing and experiencing the world much more vividly with a heightened state of alertness.
It seems that segmented sleep cycles are well documented in ancient texts, in times before artificial lighting was the norm. There are historical accounts of the ‘Fyrst Sleep’, where one lay on one’s left side, ‘The Watch’, and the ‘Second Sleep’, where one lay on one’s right side. The ‘Watch’, was the conscious episode separating the two bouts of sleep. This was regarded as a deeply pleasant, almost meditative trance. Some people would remain in bed in spiritual embodiment, peasant couples often too tired to talk after work, would use this period to reconnect with each other talking and making babies, while others would get up and walk about. In tribal cultures this even served as a defense mechanism, and ensured there was always someone awake, keeping an eye out for danger.
However, with the introduction of Edison’s light bulb, we suddenly changed our sleeping patterns. We have now consolidated our sleep to eight hours, and segmented sleep has become a cultural artifact. Ironically, today a disrupted sleep cycle is often treated as a disorder, with people ingesting sleeping pills to ensure their solid eight hour slumber.
Nowadays most people spend 16 hours awake and only eight hours in bed.
I wonder though, how much more efficient we are compared to our forebears. I spend my evenings browsing trademe, looking at lol cats, or watching TV. None of these are particularly constructive activities, and the latter, our pastime favourite of watching TV, has been shown to consume fewer calories than our more vital REM sleep.
I can’t help but ponder whether my life would be improved if I deprived myself of lolcats, and instead spent my evenings in bed.
Wehr’s results have intrigued me, and I am now determined to experience these myself.
And so begins my sleep experiment.
For the next 30 days we intend to go to bed at 8pm. No more Tuesday night pub quiz, Thursday library night, or Friday after-work drinks.
We’re going to become social hermits.
Will I experience ‘The Watch’? Will it be a deeply pleasant meditative trance. Or will I be inspired by creativity and write epic blog posts at 3am? Will I be more alert and productive during the day, with the excitability and energy of a small child (much to the disdain of my exhausted colleagues)? Or will I become depressed with boredom?
Time will tell. Let the experiment begin.
We retired to bed at 19.57pm.
It was my new bed-time, but my mind had different ideas.
As I lay in the dark my mind raced through stripping down our Victorian fire-place, Danish Oil, how to silence our noisy weekend neighbours, what I’d be doing at work the next day, how many more rats survived Andrew and Ned, whether our house would stand up to an earthquake, and a myriad of trivial details I observed during the day.
Normally I go to bed some-time after 10pm, often exhausted. This is frustrating as despite this, I’m not ready to face unconsciousness. I still have many thought processes to complete, but find them stunted as my unconscious mind attempts to entice me into la-la land. As I think about stripping kauri corbels, I suddenly see them growing butterfly wings and fly off into sub-reality, my restoration image frustratingly corrupted by my hypnagogic sleep fairy. I grapple with the corbels trying to pull them back into reality. But regardless of how hard I try I lose the battle after usually only just a few minutes.
So, it was nice to have my conscious mind all to myself to rehash my day’s events, without needing to engage in my nightly battle with the sleep fairy. When my hypnagogic other half finally decided to visit an hour or so later, I was completely ready for the ride.
Once asleep, we both awakened a few more times during the night, but mostly slept solidly until the morning where we were summoned back into reality by the gentle beeps of the bread-maker.
Eleven hours later, I face Day One reasonably alert and energetic.
So far so good.