In praise of sleep

Sleeping girl (safe for work)

Sleep is necessary for most humans and animals, and can also be great fun. ^_^

Sleep has a bit of a bad reputation. In popular usage, it often equals laziness. “Great men are not born great – they become great while others sleep.” So says an ancient proverb, and it may have been true in the ages when the night lasted for eleven hours. Today, sleeping is such a scarce resource that an extra hour or two can actually make you greater: The average young adult American will do measurably better on IQ tests after sleeping an hour longer than usual.

The pressure against sleep may have started hundreds of years ago when coffee was invented, but it was only with the invention of electric light that the tide of the battle turned. Thomas Edison famously promised to make electricity so cheap, only the rich would buy candles. This also came to pass. No longer was darkness enough of an excuse for sleep; and with cheap coffee from the colonies, lack of sleep was no longer enough excuse for being tired. Over the span of one human lifetime, the night became the new border for mankind to settle, and lack of sleep became the normal human condition.

Today, sleep disturbances are among the most common health problems in the rich world, although they are rarely fatal in themselves. Instead, lack of sleep quietly increase the number of deaths from other causes. One obvious example is traffic accidents (driving while tired is comparable to driving drunk, but almost impossible for police to detect).  But lack of sleep also contributes more indirectly to mortality, by reducing our willpower and increasing appetite, contributing to the already large problem of obesity. And eating is only half the problem: Being half sleepy, we are more likely to sit down and zone out in front of the TV rather than do something active with our body. This is even worse for our health than the extra pounds we pack on. Ironically, it also contributes to the insomnia of the next night.

For despite our “sleep debt”, we experience insomnia more than ever. In part this is a self-fuelling process: When we have no more time left for sleep than we need, we become impatient, which makes it hard to sleep. The more we concentrate on sleeping, the less sleepy we become. Ironically, people who struggle to stay awake find it harder and harder, so instead of sleeping at night, we fall asleep at work or, if worst comes to worst, at the wheel.

Sleep has a number of health benefits in itself, but this mostly applies to the deep sleep (“delta sleep”, named for the large, slow, regular delta brainwaves.) In this sleep phase, the brain activity is at its lowest, but the body’s hormone and immune system are adjusted. Human growth hormone is secreted in this phase, and it takes up more time in children, less in adults, and almost disappear among the elderly. This form of sleep mostly take place early in the night, during the first and second sleep cycle.  (Each sleep cycle consists of four phases and lasts approximately 90 minutes – there may be some variation, but that is the rule-of-thumb number.)

Another important part of sleep is REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), which is where the intense, lifelike (or larger than life) dreams appear. Strong feelings are common in this phase. While the muscles we normally control are switched off, the heart and lungs are working as hard as when we are awake or more so. Many heart attacks occur in the morning when we have most of this sleep. Another important effect of REM sleep is that it activates the sexual organs. This is very obvious in men, but does not necessarily imply that the dreams are sexual in nature. Pretty much any REM dream that is not a nightmare is likely to cause some sexual activation, at least in the young.

The first REM dreams tend to be short and unpleasant, but over the course of the night they become longer, more convoluted but usually also happier. This is a major reason why most people feel more upbeat in the morning (well, after they get over the rude awakening of the alarm clock). A certain type of clinical depression however has this reversed, so that the later dreams get worse and worse. Patients naturally tend to try to sleep less, but this has other negative effects on their health. Alcohol also reduces REM sleep, and it is not uncommon for patients with this condition to take up drinking.

Between the deep sleep and the vivid dream sleep there are two intermediate levels which are really neither. They tend to consist of disjointed images, trivial dreams or shallow thought. As we grow older, the experience in these sleep phases tend to become more and more thought-like, and it is not uncommon for people to wake up thinking they have not slept at all, despite having spent several hours in alpha and (mostly) theta sleep. As we age, this part of the sleep also takes up more and more of the time as the two others slowly dwindle.


It varies greatly how much sleep a person needs. Babies need more than children, children more than adults, adults a bit more than elders, and teenagers a lot more than they believe. The highly intelligent often need less sleep than others. But there are also great variations among families, and even individuals. So anything between four and ten hours is probably OK if you feel awake and refreshed when you wake up (or shortly after).

What is not OK, however, is a sudden change in sleep patterns. I don’t mean from night to night, but changes over the course of weeks or months. Changes in sleep patterns are among the first signs of psychosis, before disturbances in behavior. But there is also the risk that your hormones may be affected by some kind of disease, including tumors. So if you need a lot more or less sleep than you did half a year ago, on a regular basis, you should absolutely talk to a health professional or two. Since sleep problems are ubiquitous, your doctor may not listen if you are vague on this point. Make it clear that this is not a matter of sleeping in a new bed or having stress at work. (Unless, of course, that is the truth.)


There are several ways of dealing with insomnia or simply trying to get by on less sleep. The most obvious is the nap. If you have periods during the day when you are so tired that you almost black out, consider if it is possible to find a shielded place and nap for a few minutes. Napping for five or ten minutes is likely to restore your energy to a surprisingly high degree. In fact, this is generally more likely to leave you wide awake than longer naps of half an hour or more.

A related technique is to sit and close your eyes while holding an object in one of your hands. Empty your mind completely – this should be easy when you are super sleepy –  and give yourself over to sleep. When the object falls down, you will wake from the sound, or from the feeling of losing it. (Probably not wise to use an expensive vase for this – I use a plastic soda bottle with a little water in and the cap on. A bell would obviously be perfect. You can also tie some smaller object to your finger with a thread, which will wake you without making a loud sound.) You may not actually need to fall asleep, the point is having a way that ensures you will wake up if you do. A couple minutes of passing through the borderlands of sleep may be enough.

It would seem that the transition into and out of sleep is itself a particularly potent phase, as demonstrated by this “power nap” technique. We don’t know exactly why this is. Esoteric tradition says that information is passed between the conscious self and the greater soul (subconscious) at the moment of falling asleep and of waking up, but brainwave scans fail to show any such moment: The brain produces alpha waves that gradually get more and more mixed with theta waves, and you may address the test subject at any time in this sliding scale and they will return seamlessly to waking. In the case of intense bouts of sleepiness, however, there is subjectively a moment of falling asleep (or not) which is clearly perceived.

Another practice is sleeping twice rather than once. For instance you may return from work, sleep for three hours, stay up into the small hours, and sleep three hours again, yet perform as well as you otherwise would with seven or eight hours of sleep. Some people find this quite effective, while others find it horribly uncomfortable and quickly give up. It depends mainly on how much your body follows the circadian rhythm. Some people have great changes in body temperature over the course of the day, while others have rather small changes. The first group seem doomed to having at least one fairly long sleep, while the second group can split theirs into two or even more, and get away with less sleep overall.

Finally, there is meditation and brainwave entrainment, which I have some experience with. Neither of these can replace sleep, but both can reduce the need for sleep to some degree. If you get up an hour earlier in the morning and meditate for half an hour, you will usually be more rested, awake and alert than when you slept an hour longer. However, you cannot meditate for two hours and skip four hours of sleep; well, most people cannot, at least. Gurus who spend much of their day in deep meditation may need as little as a couple hours of sleep each night.

Brainwave entrainment offers the possibility to enter brainwave states that are usually only available during sleep, such as delta with its slow, large brainwaves that span most of the sleeping brain. Such entrainment may require some experience to make the full use of, and is best combined with meditation. Even without meditation, however, a great degree of entrainment will occur after about 8 minutes, as long as you don’t harbor primal emotions (fear, anger, lust or disgust). The entrainment starts in an area near the top of the brain stem, and the reptile brain with its primal emotions lies between this area and the larger brain which we want to entrain. It is in other words a practical rather than moral problem, if that helps.

Audio-based entrainment can be used in bed (especially if you are alone there) – binaural beats require headphones while monaural and isochronic can be delivered either over speakers, headphones or ear plugs. The benefit of this approach is that it is easier to fall asleep when you know you don’t need to. Since the delta entrainment will anyway ensure some of the benefits of deep sleep (just not all), you will not panic if you stay awake.

For the duration of your staying awake, your brain will be influenced by the sound pulse. During sleep, however, the 90-minute sleep cycle will to a great degree overrule any external impulses, so you will still experience vivid dreams etc. This is based on my personal experience. I have seen claims that deep sleep is deeper when there is delta entrainment going on, but I don’t have any reliable research at hand that proves this, and cannot attest it from personal experience. It seems to me that brainwave entrainment is most effective in the period leading up to sleep, and in the morning. It may be a good idea to have a sound track that times out but is easy to restart.

This concludes today’s lecture. ^_^

For further and even weirder reading, an external link: The Mystery of Sleep and the lucky few who don’t need it.


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