Circadiana is a new blog written by "Coturnix," who appears to be an academic studying sleep. Yesterday, Couturnix posted a wonderful, informative, lucid essay on the biological and social nature of sleep and how it interacts with technology. Technology — the light bulb, in particular — is a drug that exerts a powerful physical force on our sleep habits, one that we haven't yet figured out how to metabolize safely. Coturnix's piece is the most fascinating thing I've read on the subject — and I did a ton of research on the subject for my novel Eastern Standard Tribe, but I wish I'd had this paper then.
A classical sociobiological just-so story posits that this kind of individual variation on the lark/owl continuum had an adaptive function, namely to ensure that at every time of night at least one member of the tribe was awake. Thus some stood guard early in the night, others late in the night, listening to the sounds of the jungle (or savannah, or whatever) while the midnight break is thought to have been used for copulating with whomever also happens to be awake at the time – this was before the social invention of sexual monogamy…
Pretending that sleep-need does not exist is also institutionalized. I am not talking just about night-shifts and rotating shifts (those will kill you), night flights, being available for communication 24/7, stores open 24/7, etc – those are part of a modern society, will not go away, and we just need to learn how to adjust. I am talking about the building standards. With a huge proportion of the population working at night, why do windows have no blinds? Some old manors do, but new buildings do not. Never. Some have fake blinds, just for show, screwed into the outside walls on the sides of windows, yet cannot be closed. There are no built-in black curtains, or roll-down wooden blinds. It is difficult to find such curtains in stores if one wants to install one. What is going on? I have never seen, heard, read about, or experienced another country in the world in which sleep is not sacred, and blinds are not an essential part of a house.
I see some striking parallels between the way this society treats sleep and the way it treats sex. Both are sinful activities, associated with one of the Seven Deadly Sins (Sloth and Lust). Both are associated with the most powerful biological needs. Both are supposed to be a taboo topic. Both are supposed to be done in private, at night, with a pretense that it is never actually happening. Education in sleep hygiene and sex hygiene are both slighted, one way or another (the former passively, the latter actively opposed). Both are thought to interfere with one's productivity – ah, the good old Protestant work ethic! Why are Avarice and Greed not treated the same way? Raking in money by selling mega-burgers is just fine, and a decent topic of conversation, even a point of pride. Why are we still allowing Puritan Calvinist way of thinking, coupled with capitalist creed, to still guide the way we live our lives, or even think about life. Sleeping, whether with someone or alone, is a basic human need, thus a basic human right. Neither really detracts from the workplace productivity – au contraire: well rested and well satisfied people are happy, energetic, enthusiastic and productive. It is sleep repressed people, along with the dour sex repressed people, who are the problem, making everyone nervous. How much longer are we going to hide under the covers?