I've enjoyed reading articles that have appeared over the weekend about sleep, and how about most of us don't get enough of it. It's one of those things that we all know, but barely talk about. How often, when asking someone how they are, do they respond, after the obligatory "fine" with some derivation of the word "tired"? How often, in fact, do people tell you they're "knackered"?
How strange that we accept this; that most of us are tired, most of the time. In some contexts we even respect it: to be tired indicates a person is busy, and there is no greater honour than being "busy". Or being seen to be busy, which amounts to the same thing.
Neurologist Matthew Walker of the University of California at Berkeley has just written a book on the subject, which is the source of the recent media attention. The Guardian posts an excellent article on the man and his book today, with a title that gets to the heart of the matter - The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life - as does the Independent, although with an inferior headline.
Coincidentally, I happen to have been reading a book called Counting Sheep: the science and pleasures of sleep and dreams, a charming read on the subject of sleep deprivation, dreams, erections, torture, and health. The author notes how sleep deprivation has been used as a method of torture since ancient times. He passes on an anecdote of a "Chinese merchant who was sentenced to death for murdering his wife. Sleep deprivation was deliberately chosen as the method of execution, on the grounds that it would cause the maximum amount of suffering and would therefore serve as the greatest deterrent to potential murderers...[T]he prisoner eventually died on the nineteenth day, having suffered appalling torment".
One reason I gave up working full time was to spend more time in bed. I wonder if the fact that that may sound ridiculous is indicative of the problem our society has in placing value on a good night's sleep. I worked night shifts - three blocks of twelve hours a week, often more - and for three and half years, not once would I have described myself as rested. Staying awake all night is an ordeal, and being paid to do so makes it no less painful. So perhaps I was more attuned to the value of proper, natural sleep than others; but even so, as has also been widely reported, starting work before 10am is "biological torture", which means anyone stuck in the 9 to 5 (plus sweaty and exasperating commute) ought to pause for thought and ask whether their work matters more than their health.
Of course, most of us have no real choice but to work five days out of seven, wrestling ourselves out of bed before our brains and bodies are ready for it, gob down coffee and sugar and junk through the working day just to keep ourselves "productive" (which is, incidentally, one of the most disgusting words in the English language). The late, great David Foster Wallace illustrated the "petty frustrations" of ordinary life brilliantly in his classic "This is water" speech. I've linked to the relevant time code here but if you've not already heard this, start from the beginning.
Having to work, even when it kills us, even when we know it is killing us - and even when, as another American David has just as eloquently illustrated that work is objectively pointless is one of the great the tragedies of modern existence. (His book, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy also deserves your time).
You have to wonder, could it be, in such a world, that simply going to bed could be an act of rebellion?
A Case of the Mondays
A Good Night's Sleep
On staring out the window
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