Light and Darkness: How to Sleep

Sep 15 2010 Published by under Brain & Behavior

Jessa Gamble is an award-winning science writer based in Yellowknife, Canada, just a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. Because of Yellowknife's high latitude, the length  of daylight  varies widely during the year - from 5 hours in December to 20 hours in June.

The cultural adaptation of traditional subarctic cultures to that dramatic seasonal variation in day length is how she begins her discussion of natural human sleep cycles in her brief TED talk:

As Gamble notes, before artificial light became common in people's homes, most people did not sleep in an unbroken eight hour block. Instead they went to bed at dusk, slept four hours or so, had a couple hours of wakefulness (used for meditation, sex, study or work), and then returned to sleep until dawn.

As a night owl, I find it hard to imagine going to bed when the sun goes down. Even if I wanted to change my sleeping habits, unless my husband and friends also changed their schedules along with mine,  I would find it socially isolating to hit the sack at 8pm. And that doesn't even take into account the difficulty of finding a truly dark place to sleep so early in the evening. Living in a suburb laced with street lights, it doesn't ever get completely dark outside.

I doubt I'm alone in thinking that "natural" sleep patterns aren't easily compatible with modern life. What Gamble suggests is that we should consider the cost of that attitude to our mental well being.

Gamble's book about the daily rhythms of life in different cultures - The Siesta and the Midnight Sun - will be published by Viking Canada in March 2011.

For a primer on human sleep patterns, you check out "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sleep (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)" at the old Blog Around the Clock.

8 responses so far

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  • Coturnix says:

    Nice video! Also, the post can be found on the new blog as well (I know, hard to search archives in WP): here.

  • [...] Light and Darkness: How to Sleep [...]

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brainworks Rehab, Kate Sherrod aka K8E. Kate Sherrod aka K8E said: Scientopia - Light and Darkness: How to Sleep http://bit.ly/cG8u3Z [...]

  • Monado says:

    I'm naturally a night owl. It's quite difficult to wind down and go to bed at a normal hour, let alone early, without some practice. I find Very Dark Curtains and sleep eye-shades are a big help. So is going around strangling every illuminated clock, power-on LED, and night light. My life-partner goes to bed about 8 p.m. and gets up about 4:30, doesn't like me rummaging around the bedroom and doesn't sleep well without me. If I want to work on anything, it's best to remove it from the bedroom before the evening meal. It is possible, however, to adjust to that sort of schedule, which is actually rather refreshing and probably saves electricity: eat dinner, wash the dishes, and go to bed. Staring into a blue screen, looking at something blue, or even imagining blue curtains, seem to help bring on sleep.

    Bora Zivkovic wrote about humans' natural two-sleep cycle. Waking around midnight could be useful for stoking up a fire, changing sentries, sex of course, or a midnight snack. Monks in the middle ages said the first prayers of the day at midnight. I used to wonder how they could get up that early! But they then went back to bed until dawn.

    • peggy says:

      That must be difficult for you and your partner to have such different natural sleep cycles.

      When I need to shift my schedule to go to bed early and get up early, I can do it. But it's a difficult process, and left to my own scheduling I rarely go to bed before midnight.

  • becca says:

    I wonder how many parents would feel better about their infants if they thought of "block of sleep/wake two hours in the middle of the night/block of sleep" as the *normal* pattern (and not just something we have to teach babies to grow out of).