The Secret is Out: You Don’t Respect Sleep

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You might drop a few hours of sleep for some important research, or maybe a hot date. Or a great movie. Or a bad movie. Or a bad movie that you’ve seen before. In fact, you cut down on sleep for almost anything.

A recent article in the New York Times has reminded readers that too little sleep poses serious health risks. Highlighting a number of recent studies, the article provides a huge list of potential threats from cutting down on sleep. These include:

  • Damage to vital organs
  • Weakened immune system
  • Depression
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Coronary Disease
  • Cancer
  • Hormonal or behavioural problems in children
  • Impaired memory, learning, and problem-solving
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Higher risk of car accidents

There are a lot of reasons to get your nightly eight hours. But this isn’t the first time that a major publication has detailed the many threats and dangers that stem from sleeplessness. In fact, most people know that getting enough sleep is important for good health. Yet we still fail to do so.

Some of us suffer from insomnia, and would gladly get more sleep if they could. But more of us choose to get less sleep. Because we’ve been thinking about sleep all wrong.

Something’s Gotta Give

We’re busy. We’re very busy. In order to fit in everything that we want to do, well, something’s got to give. And usually, what gives is sleep. Sleep is the easiest thing to subtract a few hours from to get extra time for work or play.

Sleep is given the lowest possible priority in our lives. As far as what our body needs, sleep is given less respect than anything else.

Think of some other body needs:

  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Breathing
  • Avoiding pain
  • Or, if you’ve been eating bran muffins and drinking coffee for an hour, some other not-so-subtle biological urges

We hardly ever say “I don’t have time to eat food today” or “I only have time for a sip of liquid today.” No matter how busy we are, we make time for these needs – we fit them in however we can.

We would never say “I’m too busy to breathe” or “I’d like to go to the bathroom today, but I’m just too darn busy.”

But sleep doesn’t get the same respect. Because the effects of skipping sleep aren’t so immediate and obvious, we don’t worry about shuffling our sleep schedules around, or pruning away a few hours a night to make room for a movie.

The fact is, sleep is just as key a biological necessity as food, water, and air. With too little for one night, we’re grumpy and fuzzy-headed. Long-term, as we saw in the New York Times, we invite a host of problems. And with none, we simply die.

Re-Thinking Sleep

One reason that sleep is easy to ignore is that we don’t remember it. It’s a black hole out of our day.

A 75-year-old man would have spent a third of his life sleeping – about 25 years. This figure is often seen as depressing or wasteful: “Imagine what I could have done with those extra 25 years instead of blowing them on all that darn sleep!”

This shows a common problem with the way we think about sleep. We think of it as a waste of time because it’s not active.

In truth, we should value sleep as a time in our day that is different, but equally valuable to our waking hours.

What We Remember from Sleep

In an eight hour sleep, upwards of two hours is spend dreaming. Dreams can last for just a few seconds, or up to twenty minutes. The strangest and most memorable dreams occur during REM sleep, during which the brain can be as active as it is during consciousness.

From ancient Mesopotamia to Sigmund Freud, dreams have been pondered and analyzed. In various cultures through history, dreams have been seen as:

  • Signs from God or gods
  • Visions of the future
  • A glimpse into other worlds
  • A symbolic message to the dreamer
  • Contact with ancestors
  • Temptation from demons
  • A view into personal trauma or hidden urges

Most people today no longer follow these dream-theories. Today, we typically see dreams as goofy nonsense. They conflict with our scientific or religious world views. But in order to value the time spent sleeping, we must somehow start being interested in our dreams again.

This interest doesn’t need to be in the form of dream analysis, or any kind of strict format like those listed above. But the better that we can cherish our dreams, then the more those 8 hours sleeping become an important part of our lives.

Dreams today can simply be entertainment, a free show for you while you sleep. Dreams can be inspiration, spurring on a story, song, or even a career change. Dreams can mean whatever you like, so long as you look forward to them, and value them somehow.

What We Forget from Sleep

Of course, not all of sleep is dreaming. And even what dreams we have aren’t always remembered.

Hold on to your hat as I’m going to get a little bit philosophical: Does the pleasure of an experience come from the happening, or the remembering?

Let’s say you went to Disneyland and you had a great time. You even shook Goofy’s hand. But on the way home you got conked in the head by a coconut.  From that, you lost your memory of the entire trip. You don’t remember Disneyland at all. But you still had fun while you were there. Was the trip still worth it?

Think of your forgotten dreams the same way. They are fun while they last, and the fact that you forgot them doesn’t take that away.

What about the time spent asleep and not dreaming? Some people like to view it in the same light as meditation. It’s a time for the mind to recenter itself, while the body recharges. From that perspective, we should embrace the nothingness of dreamless sleep as a purely calm and undistracted state.

Good Night

Tonight, when it’s getting close to bed time there will still be laundry to be done, or reports to be written, or a TV show to watch. But let them wait until tomorrow and look for the value of your own time spent sleeping.

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