Six a.m. on a Sunday… I groaned and turned off the alarm clock. I hadn’t been sleeping well, or enough, and did not want to obey the imperative summons… especially not on a day when, historically, most folks get to sleep later. As I clawed my way through the fleeing remnants of a dream in which I had been dreaming about dreaming, I wondered about the whole sleep thing. We are supposed to spend about a third of our lives in slumber. Is that a design flaw, a superb bit of physical engineering or a gift? Maybe it is all three, or perhaps that depends on where you are standing.
There has been a huge amount of research done on the need for and benefits of sleep, from both the physical and psychological perspectives. We have identified the stages of sleep, the way the mind solves problems and the body heals and recharges. But that side of things wasn’t what was bugging me.
Other than the ‘low-battery’ warning that tells us our bodies need sleep, what is it about the process that makes us crave it? We look forward to sleep and yet, during the night hours, normal consciousness takes a hike; we have no control over our bodies or, apparently, our minds. We are defenceless… and we surrender ourselves to sleep willingly? You have to admit, that seems an odd state of affairs.
And we are not on our own. We don’t understand sleep in all other creatures, can’t even fully define it, but it seems that all of them sleep in one way or another. Fish sleep with their eyes open, as most of them don’t have eyelids to close. Dolphins only let one hemisphere of the brain sleep at any time, so they can keep moving. Others only cat-nap for minutes… though cats sleep around sixteen hours a day.
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