A History of Sleep

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Although sleep is one of the few shared activities common to all humanity, it is also the most private. What we experience during our sleeping hours is untranslatable during the daylight.

The way we sleep depends upon time and place, especially latitude. The view depicting in movies of our prehistoric ancestors huddled together for warmth and safety from predators in the communal cave as soon as the sun set is probably not far from the mark as the same basic pattern can be found, in a more sophisticated fashion, in Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlements, where all members of the clan would sleep on a raised parapet above a sunken, blazing fire in the Great Hall of a powerful chieftain, who would nevertheless sleep amongst his subjects. In the fortified keeps and castles of the later medieval period in Ireland and Britain elements of social stratification can be seen as now the presiding figures that controlled life within the castle have their own separate bedchambers.

Great changes in societal patterns were occurring in the city states of what is now Italy. A benevolent climate where the amounts of daylight and night-time are more equally distributed throughout the year led to lives less overwhelmed by the struggle for mere survival and the flourishing of the first recognizable modern cities. From these states came merchant princes and an artisan middle class involved in completely new professions. At night the streets were lit and families lived more spaciously in single family dwellings. As lives were less arduous it was no longer necessary to retire as early or to rise at dawn. It is a curious fact that the two presiding genius of the Renaissance, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci slept for less than four hours a night.

From this point onwards Western society was bent upon colonizing the night. With electricity the conquest was completed. Whereas candlelight and oil lamps seemed to re-enforce the nature of the surrounding night, electricity completely dispels darkness, replacing it with an artificial daytime. Soon the traditional conceptions of diurnal night and day will have no meaning, instead we have a twenty-four hour neuter-time that neither begins or ends. Technical acumen has made possible the manufacture of machines, robots and computers, whose main selling point is that they never tire, never sleep and never stop.

Increasingly prevalent in the work-driven and success haunted West is the idea that sleep is an enemy, only enjoyed by the idle and unambitious. Go getters only unwillingly submit to a hopefully dreamless sleep when absolutely required to preserve sanity, and even then for the shortest period possible. Upon waking the inexplicable images that the helpless dreamer witnessed are dispelled by the light of the working day and dismissed as irrelevant.  Are we too far off a time when a sleep deprived scientist, every hour ridden by waking nightmares re-engineers and genetically alters an unborn child so that it will never sleep? And when that happens can we consider that person who, having never experienced nightly oblivion, that plunge into an endless ocean where unremitting self-consciousness is blissfully, if only temporarily relinquished, human at all?

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59 thoughts on “A History of Sleep

    1. Ahh I didn’t mean to make you defensive, I am arguing by analogy against certain trends but as I doubt I will turn the tide I tend to overstate the case. I certainly hope we wouldn’t fall out anyway as I like your work and you are one of my most perceptive readers.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks for this response. I understood that this was a general argument and not necessarily one for less sleep in general. What I meant to say, just to further this discussion is that I hear so much about what wealthy (and therefore successful) people do to achieve success. And I read lists that are used to guilt working class people into working longer hours. How much money is made on a five minute trade while someone is on a yacht lolling about? Or from patent royalties. That’s what I was thinking about when I said that I sounded defensive. We use a perception of reality as a template and mine tends to differ from most.

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      2. My closing paragraph was meant to be critical of such views that the ‘go getters’ hoist upon society to further turn the screw…I am all for the idle dreamers…I think the whole ‘I am so busy I have to get up at 4am to run a half marathon and then beat my employees to the office’ is so vulgar,and is contributing to turning people into automations who speak, think and act on rote. By no means do I exclude myself from such criticisms as the encroachment of the culture upon the individual is corrovisely all pervasive.

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      3. Thank you for understanding what I was trying to say. I absolutely, passionately agree with your last paragraph. I’m sure we all are influenced by such memes but once the wear and tear sets in there is only so much a vitamin drip can do. Please continue to invite these stimulating discussions. Best wishes. xo

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      1. Of course! I wonder what effects communal sleeping would have on a modern human. I haven’t slept amongst other people in a very long time. Would it be comforting? Would it be awkward?

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  1. Wonderful write, great question at the end. Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci were perhaps short-sleepers. You’re probably familiar with the term. The gene has been isolated, introduction of the human gene into mice resulted in a reduction of sleep needed by the mice. Imagine the possible implications of this. Take care, enjoy your rest! ~ Mia

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      1. I so agree. I truly believe our day dreams (wannabe dreams) are the precursors to our less controlled deeper multi-level dreams. These dreams are very revealing and insightful if we care to look at them.

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      2. Thank you, that’s a most wonderful compliment. I can only speak for myself, but I find dreams absolutely fascinating. I thought they were all heavy, just the act of dreaming itself is heavy. Dreams can indeed be incredibly haunting. I especially like the ones that we return to over and over again. There is something to be said about things that are repeated, they are important and powerful, the subconscious is mysterious, magical and truthful.

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      3. By the way I would love your opinion on my series of abstract stories ‘To come up here first you have to go down’ when you have the chance. I do realise that I am always imposing on your kindness but I do so value your insightful and informed analysis. Thanks

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  2. I think anyone who was made to never sleep would be one looney, anxiety ridden person. I would be. I can’t function on less than 6hrs.
    Not to mention how horrible of an imagination the poor children would have, as dreams help with creating make believe.
    Sounds like a horror movie. Lol
    Great post!โ˜บ

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much. I have been struck how everyone is always so busy and so proud of it and how people boast about how little sleep they get. Personally I would like to be idle as possible and I always take a nap when I can as my best ideas occur then. Thanks for the comments.

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  3. Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, poet, novelist and academic, used to spend many hours in bed. When asked how, in spite of that, he managed to get so much work done, legend has it that he replied: “Because when I am awake, I am much more wide-awake than you are.”

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  4. When Franco’s troops entered the Senate Room at the University of Salamanca (Unamuno was Rector at the time, 1936) they chanted “Viva la Muerte” / ‘Long live death’. Unamuno replied: “Venceran, pero no convenceran.” / “You will win, but you will not convince.” Great man, Unamuno, an early existentialist and one of my favorite writers. [Vencer / to win; convencer / to convince]. Oh the knowledge and dreams packed into the confines of this little head.

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      1. One hell of a question, Mr. Cake. When I lived in Spain, I mingled with Francoists, Separatists, and Republicans. They were all good friends, with very different beliefs. It’s so easy to choose in a vacuum: but it’s difficult to make a reasoned choice when the pistol is held to your head. I think the choices might have been made for me: force majeur.

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      2. Agreed, we can never really tell what we would do unless we were in that situation. However I would like to think that I would face the firing squad with nonchalance, ask for a cigarette, slowly smoke it and then say alright lads, bows the time.

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      3. Alas, it was often so much more squalid than that. I just pray that neither myself, nor any of my friends, are ever put in that situation. “L’homme n’est rien d’autre que ce qu’il fait.” We can philosophize: but what do we do when the Gestapo knock on our door at two o’clock in the morning?

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    1. I couldn’t agree more. This is one of my essays done in creative writing classes, which was a complete disaster. My teacher didn’t like it at all, nor anything I wrote. We didn’t gel and our aesthetics were diametrically opposed.

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      1. That often happens in writing classes: the ‘master novelist’ demands that the learner follows exactly in the magisterial footsteps. There are teachers like that too. I am NOT one of those. I believe in helping the students understand themselves and then shape their own directions. My methods worked, but they caused multiple problems in the ‘follow-me-faculty’!

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  5. Interesting post. Some thoughts: Sleep is when we are at our most vulnerable. Sleeping in communal settings requires trust, and I imagine more so in the cave and medieval days where any one of the group with a bone to pick could thrust a blade into you while you slept. And while perhaps not as common these days, still we hear stories like this on the news. Not sure what my point is, other than sleep, while critical to our well-being is at the same time, in some ways, our Achilles Heel. With a machine for a body and computers for brains, we can’t function properly without something as benign as lying still and dreaming. Ironic, isn’t it? As for are we human if we evolve or are altered to not require sleep…well, it wouldn’t be the kind of human we recognize, I don’t think. There would be much lost when our opportunity to dream is taken away. ๐Ÿ™‚

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