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Wake up! The social construction of sleep

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Sleeping

Sleeping by soylentgreen23 via Flickr

If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there worrying.
It’s the worry that gets you, not the lack of sleep.

Dale Carnegie

It’s 2:42 a.m. Two cats howling outside my window woke me up. Unable to get back to sleep, it seemed like a good time to reflect on some of the cultural assumptions that modern, technological societies have about the idea of “a good night sleep.” 1

Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to agree that sleep is a great restorative. The ancient Greeks extolled it as a sacred salve that releases mankind from the pain and worry of daytime reality. And the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, spoke favorably of dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious.”

Freud’s brightest student, Carl G. Jung, was also interested in dreams. Jung felt that our nighttime productions compensate for what we’re missing in daytime. Jungians also maintain that dreams guide us toward a greater, integrated sense of meaning.

Sleep Deprivation

In a National Geographic article a Harvard neuroscientist claims that US society is “tremendously sleep deprived.” If we don’t sleep well during the night, it’s usually recommended to try to nap, rest or meditate sometime during the day.

The controversial mystic Sri Aurobindo had a completely different view about sleep, one not supported by contemporary medical science. Aurobindo saw sleep as a sluggish, inferior form of consciousness that’s best overcome through intense meditation. In fact, Aurobindo claimed to have conquered the need for sleep. Christian monks also get less sleep than the average layperson but, arguably, for different reasons than Aurobindo’s.

Medical science tells us that sleep is important. The body synthesizes proteins faster in the retina and cerebral cortex during sleep hours, enhancing growth and restoration.2 Sleep deprivation actually impairs cerebral cortex functioning, this being the newest part of the brain to appear over the course of human evolution.

Sleep deprivation also has harmful effects on memory and contributes to anxiety and even paranoia. Keeping people sleepy is a great way to brainwash, manipulate or indoctrinate. No wonder cult leaders and political interrogators use sleep deprivation to get subjects to comply with their wishes (at the risk of offending some, one could argue that a similar dynamic exists in some monasteries).

Snake Oils

insomnia by Jonathan Jacobsen

insomnia by Jonathan Jacobsen via Flickr

Over the counter sleep medications tend to have deleterious side effects and don’t really engender sound sleep. No wonder so many online marketers are peddling the latest sleep-inducing herbs and alleged wonder-drugs.

Clearly, this is a case of buyer beware. Scam artists more interested in profit than helping people often have a crafty sales pitch, one which postmodern deconstructionists would have a field day with.

For instance, if you don’t get your eight hours every night some of these unscrupulous marketers will declare that you’re suffering from an illness.3 You’re then informed that substance X (which they happen to sell at their website) is the just thing for you. This idea is then backed up or, I should say, apparently backed up, by quasi-scientific truth claims. Your wonder-drug may be an extract, a herb or perhaps some other expensive snake oil—all to make you healthier, happier and a more productive member of society.4

Admittedly, this is an extreme scenario, one facilitated by cheesy internet and TV ads. There is solid scientific support for the responsible use of some herbs and extracts. Healing with herbs is also advocated in the Old Testament (Sirach 38: 1-15).

However, a recent CBC Marketplace documentary notes that we normally don’t know the long-term side effects of many herbs. It’s also good to remember that the phrase ‘side effects’ is a medical and pharmacological euphemism for unhealthy effects.

To take herbs and oils on the reassuring word of a total stranger seems unwise. Hopefully herb and wonder-drug companies will soon be integrated with reliable health officials to prevent the possibility of harmful side effects. A definite step in the right direction seems to be the Adverse Drug Reaction Database.

Allopathic sleep medications may also have unhealthy side effects and are often addictive. But sometimes their use can be more positive than negative, providing they’re taken responsibly and with professional supervision.

A red flag should go up, however, whenever anyone tries to make a religion out of any kind of treatment. Both allopathic and homeopathic practitioners can cling to their respective paradigms while closing their minds to new possibilities.

New Age Fancies

An artist's rendition of Neanderthals

An artist's rendition of Neanderthals via Wikipedia

Some New Age figures like Deepak Chopra say the electric lights and general hubbub of modern society have disrupted our natural biorhythms, often called the Circadian rhythm. These pundits of the soul lament that we’ve severed some kind of sacred connection with the natural environment and with our distant ancestors.

This calls to mind romantic myths of the natural man, or as some put it, the noble savage. But who can really say what’s natural and what’s not?5

Anthropological research suggests that Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals weren’t so different from contemporary mankind. Our distant friends probably awoke in the dead of night just as we do in the 21st century. Instead of worrying about money or health, our ancestors — if that’s what they were — probably suffered anxiety over hunger, hostile animals, ambushes, storms and seasonal weather changes.6 Indeed, a BBC article about Neanderthal violence indicates that life in prehistoric times was anything but idyllic.

So to say that primitives lived in some kind of stress-free, golden age replete with tranquil nights seems more like fanciful fiction than reality.

Transpersonal Connections

As to why we awake in the night, this is often attributed to personal stress or some kind of medical disorder. But in some cases, perhaps many, sleep disturbances could be caused by transpersonal connections.

By transpersonal I mean essentially spiritual connections among souls. Not everyone believes in this idea. But almost all saints and mystics do. (Mind you, Buddhists don’t really believe in souls, but they do believe in spiritual attributes that can migrate from one being to another).

One great figure who definitely believes in an individual soul is the Catholic saint, Faustina Kowalska. And her Divine Mercy Diary, makes frequent mention of transpersonal connections.

For instance, Saint Kowalska writes that she once awoke in the middle of the night in response to a distressed soul in need of prayerful intercession.

During the night, I was suddenly awakened and knew that some soul was asking me for prayer, and that it was in much need of prayer. Briefly, but with all my soul, I asked the Lord for grace for her.7

Like a lightning rod for other people’s anxiety, Faustina rarely got a solid eight hours sleep.

Polski: Fotografia św. Faustyny Kowalskiej

Polski: Fotografia św. Faustyny Kowalskiej via Wikipedia

For some, this kind of scenario is hard to understand. Perhaps one could imagine an intern who’s always on call. There’s a 3 a.m. emergency and the intern is awakened by her pager. And so it is, one could say, with the spiritual work of the sensitive soul or contemplative saint—but unlike the medical doctor, the saint doesn’t need a pager to sense what’s going on.

Again, most people just can’t imagine, let alone appreciate, this kind of dynamic. It’s far too subtle for the average person, mired in conventional wisdom and their historically informed conception of the universe and beyond.

For many, saints like Sister Faustina would appear to be an oddball, flake or, perhaps, mentally ill. And the tormented souls for whom she intercedes are just figments of her imagination or, worse, pathological hallucinations.

Sadly, this kind of materialist bias has crept into some corners of the contemporary Catholic Church, a place where a bona fide mystic like St. Faustina could, at one time, be recognized for what God called her to be—namely, a contemplative saint.8

Of course, most people aren’t called to be contemplative saints and must hold down 9 to 5 jobs to maintain a desired standard of living and to provide for their families. These folks are obviously necessary to society and it’s probably in their best interest to do everything possible to maintain a predictable nighttime sleep pattern. But let’s not suppose that this is a natural way for everyone. There are always important exceptions to the rule.

Sometimes these exceptions are built-in to an entire culture. Consider, for instance, India or South America. In these cultures a daytime nap is a normal and expected part of living. During the afternoon stores close, windows are shuttered and most everybody sleeps.

In the Western world, geniuses like Mozart, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley and James Joyce took advantage of late night hours. Likewise, Jesus Christ, arguably the best man of all, stayed up to pray through the night.

It’s hard to imagine what kind of world we’d have if these outstanding individuals hadn’t surpassed cultural conventions and expectations. By the same token, not everyone is a born artist, politician or spiritual leader. And it seems only a relative few can stand aside and see beyond their immediate society. Indeed, getting a solid eight hours sleep can be quite pleasant. It’s reassuring to “fit in” with the real or imagined status quo, as most of us did in childhood.

But when childhood’s over, we must consider alternatives, especially if our “good night sleep” doesn’t come as easily as before. Waking up in the middle of the night — or perhaps keeping late hours — could be an opportunity for enhanced creativity and productivity.

For all we know, making the most out of unpredictable sleep patterns might be essential to the new global order, where one person’s day is another’s night.

Notes

1. I’m alluding to the idea of the ‘social construction of reality,’ outlined by the sociologists Berger and Luckman.

2. It’s conceivable that Sri Aurobindo managed to activate these metabolic conditions while meditating, but on this we can’t be sure.

3. Readers interested in the notion of the ‘medical gaze’ are referred to Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic.

4. An internal FDA study suggests that about 2/3 of FDA scientists have lost confidence in that agency’s ability to protect the public from potentially harmful substances. See “Inside the FDA,” CBS.news.com, December 16, 2004:  http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/08/26/health/main638721.shtml?CMP=ILC-SearchStories

5. The idea of the natural can be critiqued from sociological, philosophical and theological perspectives. Meanwhile, some maintain that the natural is qualitatively different from the volitional and the spiritual.

6. Ronald Wright’s discussion in A Short History of Progress is worthwhile, available on iTunes.

7. Divine Mercy in My Soul, p. 319. While the transfer of anxiety may not always be as clear and distinct as with this example of a recognized saint, it seems reasonable to suggest that everyone may be open, in varying degrees, to the ebb and flow of collective emotions and other psycho-spiritual qualities and experiences. In Indian philosophy, this points toward the idea of karma transfer, as noted by Indologist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in The Origins of Evil In Hindu Mythology. Also, C. G Jung and other transpersonal psychiatrists such as S. Grof similarly speak of syntonic countertransference.

8. (a) Not to ignore the possibility of spiritual deception. Please see ETs, UFOs and the Psychology of Belief and related articles at earthpages.org and earthpages.ca dealing with the idea of discernment. (b) The Church’s organizational structure stresses that the clergy conform (and to some degree laypersons) to a relatively fixed mode of worship and service. And perhaps in an attempt to be ‘modern’ and receptive to the scientific establishment, the Church seems to uncritically embrace some of the more spurious scientific ideas that are circulating today. This is no abstract point. In keeping with Michel Foucault’s thinking, giving credence to questionable discourses may have potentially harmful effects on individuals and society.

Wake up! The Social Construction of Sleep copyright © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.

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7 thoughts on “Wake up! The social construction of sleep

  1. I think sleep is what we choose to make of it. Lucid Dreaming, for instance, is a very interesting and spiritual use of sleep….

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    • I’ve tried to do that but didn’t get very far. Also, I feel that, for me, it’s best to just let dreams happen. If I were to control them, they might not be as refreshing or helpful as when God directs them.

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  2. Great article. Thanks

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  3. Interesting stuff. I do a fair amount of teaching on sleep and your main point seems to be to roll with it and accept which is good advice. I am mixed on day time sleeping. Sometimes when your sleep deprived any port in a storm and you need the rest. Sleeping during the day can get in the way of good night time sleep. Some really basic stuff is helpful, keeping a routine, avoiding caffeine especially late in the day, exercise but not right before bed, and progressive relaxation are all really helpful. You lump all Western meds together which is unfortunate. There is a tricyclic anti-depressant that is largely well tolerated and not habit forming called Trazodone. All of the others are incredibly addictive and pretty risky and I would lump Benadryl which is the active ingredient in all over the counter sleep meds. Anyway thoughtful piece and an interesting topic.

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    • Thanks for your comments. I didn’t intend to lump all Western meds together. So I think I’ll change the first CAN to MAY here…

      Allopathic sleep medications can also have unhealthy side effects and are often addictive. But sometimes their use can be more positive than negative, providing they’re taken responsibly and with professional supervision.

      Appreciated… 🙂

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  4. One of my favorite things to do is sleep. also I try to interpret dreams if I can remember them. However, I would like to spend more time awake so that I can accomplish more things in life.

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