Just sleep, Jonno. Lay your head on your pillow, wrap up comfy and warm…and just drift off.
Sleep is one of those things that makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. It’s not plausible for a body to be efficient enough to sustain waking energy for inordinate amounts of time; sleep is an opportunity to “charge the batteries;” a period in which energy is expended at a much slower rate and, according to recent research, a period in which the brain can strengthen any neurological connections made during the day that one would deem important. Theory says that dreams are the bi-product of this repeating of the day’s neurological activity - a conscious interpretation of the seemingly random and extremely fast paced changes in brain activity that takes place while you sleep. This explains why dreams are random and often not remembered, but leaves a massive gaping hole in the fact that we can “lucid dream,” where we are fully conscious of the dream state and world.
Sleep is recommended by experts to be best taken as a single, 6-8 hour break when the sun goes down. Something I bet half of these experts aren’t aware of is that in fact our circadian clocks are geared for two shorter, 4 hour, periods of sleep during a given 24 hour time period, separated by normal waking activity. Sleep is said to soothe the soul, prepare you for the energy expenditure of being awake, and is apparently necessary for full alertness during the day. A lack of sleep is said to lead to bad moods, headaches, the inability to focus and learn and, most importantly, the degradation of the body and mind.
So explain to me why, when I lay in bed at night, through no mechanism of being “too awake,” some people (such as myself) fail to sleep.
The theories and experts fail to explain how long-term sleep problems and extremely long periods of wake have not mangled my mind and destroyed my body.
I am, for want of a better word, an insomniac. I dislike this title though, as it suggests that I completely am unable to sleep by natural methods in most circumstances, when for the recent few years of my life I have in fact had the opposite problem of being unable to rip myself from a constantly lucid dream world once I have fallen asleep. From the age of eight I may have been called an insomniac legitimately - often I would spend periods of 30-40 hours awake before being able to achieve sleep periods as short as 3 hours, which by the way, would fully refresh me.
More recently, though, sleep comes naturally to me. It’s hard to say when this change occurred, but it did change and with it came many new problems that make me prefer those times when I didn’t have to try to stay awake.
The first time I awoke with sleep paralysis - an entirely normal and common condition in which a person’s conscious mind can re-awaken while the chemical responsible for paralysing the body during R.E.M. sleep does not dissipate (The “sufferer” is fully aware but cannot move, and often experiences slight hallucinations purely due to the strangeness of the situation) - I pretty much nearly shit myself with fear. I had no idea what was going on, but it passed quickly and I shot out of bed.
I went to college as normal, only occasionally noticing that things were a little off - my shoelaces tying themselves, the walls at College being the wrong colour, my speech occasionally repeating multiple times with no reaction from my friends - before returning home at the normal time of 4 in the afternoon to find myself, in my bed, asleep.
The confusion lasted a surprisingly short time after looking at the clock once more and seeing “06:45,” and jumping out of my skin when I opened my eyes, horizontal, with my morning alarm blaring. I was indeed not standing at the end of my bed looking back at me - turns out the entire day was a dream that took place within the 10 minute snooze on my alarm.
That night was the first I had been able to sleep comfortably and continuously in many weeks, and researching my experiences led me to realise that I had a lucid dream. I quickly learned over the next month that, while most have to train themselves to lucid dream reliably, my brain liked to slip instantly into lucid states when I drifted off and stay in that state until such time as I was late to College or, worse, work. If I woke in the mornings after forcing myself to by (I shit you not) jumping off a cliff or similar in my dream, I would simply be paralysed and by circumstance be forced to use what I then knew is the WILD (Wake Induced Lucid Dreaming) technique to slip into what I call an “unwilling” lucid dream, in which one never is quite consciously aware of the dream but is otherwise fully conscious. By this mechanism I spent a month or two constantly giving teachers and managers the only genuine excuse I had - “I overslept.” But conveying how little control I had over that was difficult - akin to explaining to someone how it feels to sneeze. So my grades dropped, work cut my hours, and my life satisfaction in general dropped dramatically.
I had grown tired of flying in my dreams and being trapped there beyond my desired time, so I researched methods of not lucid dreaming. Nothing worked. If I sleep, I will lucid dream. If I wake, I will fall asleep again. On bad days this cycle can take me to 5PM, if not later.
In recent weeks, I have tried a new experiment with sleep to see if I can solve this problem, and generally just help me enjoy the time I spend asleep better again - after all, I spent a key part of my adolescence having a bad relationship with sleep. Now that I could sleep, it was more of a hindrance than the insane relief it should have been.
This experiment basically boils down to “only go to bed if you absolutely cannot stay awake.” As a result, I spent a period of 110 hours awake at some point, performed in a Ludum Dare without sleep, and am currently writing as my 39th hour awake yet again comes to a close.
So, in a sense, I have been taking the evolutionary “rules” and throwing them out the window. And y’know what? It bloodywell worked.
The few sleeps I’ve had these past few weeks have been suitably long, not overstaying any welcome or leaving me clamouring for more. I have not dreamt once, let alone being forced into lucid dreams by volition of paralysis. It would appear that both my original insomnia and my newer “oversomnia” (a word I literally just made up) have cancelled into the best compromise: in which I can achieve normal sleep after forcing my batteries to hit absolute zero. Even during the 110 hour waking period, I noticed no drop in any physical or mental capability and in fact noticed that I became truly and markedly happier the further into it I got. And the sleep afterwards? 9 hours of pure, blank, comfort. I woke refreshed, but not in any state so as to point out how dull I was before that sleep; only as alert and happy as I was beforehand.
So through being an insomniac for many years, and then suffering the exact opposite problem, all the while exploring concepts like lucid dreams and what it means to sleep, I have reached the conclusion that people sleep too much. The experts are wrong. The theories false. At least for some.
A friend drew the lovely little theory that I stay awake for long periods of time as a kind of self-punishment or because I’m disappointed in having the complaint-worthy problem of insomnia suddenly disappear one day, but in truth it’s because I love sleeping, and by natural course any sleep I had was destructive. Nowadays I can choose whether I wish to dream, and due to the type of such dream I can choose what I dream about. I often find myself feeling more and more alive the more tired I become, and that post-sleep relief is actually worth something when I’ve worked so hard to get it. In my long periods of wake, motivations are stronger and last longer. I can work harder and act more casually, knowing that I’m not on a society-enforced time limit every day. I’ve always known that the night is a better time to perform taxing mental tasks like programming, and even these sessions have become richer with the thought of sleep not even as a conscious process.
I’ve suffered both ends of the stick regarding sleep, and have therefore been able to draw what I would call a reliable conclusion on which end is more comfortable - and it definitely falls on the insomnia end for me. If I could return to a time where staying awake wasn’t any kind of effort at all, but bring to it the knowledge that laying in bed and “trying to sleep” is truly no use, that there is so much I could be doing with that time, and that enjoying time spent in bed and asleep was even a possibility, then I would be a much happier and more successful being these days. Maybe with eyes that appear more recessed, or darker patches above my cheeks, but happier.
So my advice to anyone would be to spend a period of time awake, as long as they can. It’ll help you do more, put some perspective on just how much time there is during a day, and help you to take real value from those short hours you are apparently supposed to spend asleep every day.
Maybe I’m crazy, but for me sleep deprivation on a large scale is the healthiest decision I’ve made. Research still must be done on whether this venture has actually impacted my health in any measurable way, but should all continue to be well then I have finally found a good relationship with sleep; ironic it may be that this is through the method of not sleeping.
Food for thought? Maybe.