We know how to crack the atom, blast into space, and unravel the genome, but we don’t have the foggiest idea WHY we sleep. There are theories, but none have been proven conclusively. It’s a tremendous mystery; why would mammals evolve to be unconscious and inert for long periods, when hungry predators are always looking for them? Obviously, we want to conserve the energy we get from food and not waste it all recklessly. But why not conserve energy by simply staying still and alert? Why embrace this vulnerability?
I was obsessed by the topic of sleep as a teenager, mainly because I never got enough of it. School went from 7:30 to 3:00, and getting out of bed in the morning was sheer agony. Being the proactive little teen that I was, I did some research and found that teenager’s circadian rhythms actually vary profoundly from adults. Teenagers don’t sleep late because they’re lazy and stay up late because they’re hyperactive and irresponsible. They try to stay up late and sleep late because that’s what the chemicals in their brains are literally forcing them to do. I created a three page handout on my research, with references to all the scientific papers, and presented it to the school board.
“Study after study has shown that teenagers learn better and remember more if they are allowed to follow their natural sleep rhythms ” I told them. “Please change the school schedule in a way that will allow us to embrace our full learning potential.” After my presentation, I was praised for my intelligence and initiative, given many pats on the head, and absolutely no action on my proposals. Apparently their approval of me did not extend so far as to cause them to act on my sensible suggestions.
This was my first experience with activism, and the experience has been pretty much consistent moving forward. People always pat me on the head for speaking up, then completely ignore whatever I had to say. If they don’t actually believe what I’m saying enough to act on it, why the pats on the head, I wonder? Are the pats simply an acknowledgement of what a cute little lady I am? If I was a large, angry black man, would they take me more seriously? Oh, to be a large, angry black man.
If humans don’t sleep, they start to go crazy in very interesting ways. One of the most memorable things I read in my sleep research was about a guy who decided to experiment on himself by staying awake as long as he possibly could. After a few days, he started seeing grayish-greenish feathers around the edge of his vision. A couple days more and he was staring to rave and hallucinate. Although human beings have enormous freedom, they apparently don’t have the freedom not to sleep– at least not for days on end.
The time you spend in the limbo between sleep and waking first thing in the morning is an interesting, and for me, actually a terrifying time. I don’t know if this happens too anyone else, but for me this is the time my insecurities come to attack. If I have an important appointment that day, I lie half awake thinking, “I’m going to miss the appointment. I’m going to miss the appointment. I’m going to miss the appointment because I’m an airhead who gets lost easily and I won’t be able to find my way to the building and everyone will hate me. HATE ME!” Or today, for example, I had committed to making banana pancakes for brunch. I lay half awake thinking, “What if we don’t have any bananas? What if we don’t have any bananas? It will be a disaster. It will be like I have betrayed my roommates and sent them crashing down to doom and bannana-pancake-less destruction.”
Only when I wake up am I able to get a grip. Then I say to myself, “The appointment is only two blocks away, and if you can’t find it, your iPhone can.” Then I say to myself, “You know, it’s not really a big deal. I’m sure I can find bananas, and if I can’t, I’ll just buy new ones.” It’s as if when I sleep, I’m vulnerable in more than the physical sense. My subconscious self, which apparently has all the emotional health of a kitten without a mommy, is during that time my only self. Then when I wake up, my conscious self sproings into action like steel walls springing up around me. My ego takes control, and I am confident. competent. full of action. going places. My engine is humming and ZOOM– it’s full speed ahead.
Maybe one psychological function of sleep is to check our hubris. After all, most of the time the world is vulnerable to us. Perhaps its only fair that for a few hours at a time, we be vulnerable to the world.