Computers, phones, light bulbs…they all attack our eyes with artificial light, tricking our body clocks into living at a perpetual high noon. Temporal disorientation is an unintended consequence of technological innovation. As a result we’re missing out on true wakefulness and, in the process, creativity that sprouts from a brain that is properly rested.
Waking up in the middle of the night? That’s totally natural and it might do us some good, according to sleep historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech. "Typically people went to bed at nine or 10 o’clock. They slept for three, at most, four hours, and then they rose" sometime after midnight to do "anything and everything imaginable," he says. Then people went back to bed until dawn to rise naturally with the morning light.
That was before the gaslight proliferated in factories and homes in the early 1800s. Now, few of us know true night.
"Modern humans don’t really experience much in the way of changes in day length because we use artificial light to extend our waking hours," says Thomas Wehr, a psychiatrist emeritus at the National Institute of Mental Health.
The latest episode of the New Tech City podcast explores how technology has changed sleep through the ages, specifically through artificial light. In it, Ekirch and Wehr explain how they each discovered the natural segmented sleep pattern, Wehr through science and Ekirch through literature, and how technology is what continues to throw our body clocks out of sync with nature.
Wehr put healthy people into a totally dark room for 14 hours a night for months at a time to simulate life before artificial light. And lo and behold, they slept a whole lot more than average Americans. "They paid back something like 17 hours of sleep on average, but it took three weeks to pay it back," he says.
Then it got interesting. The research subjects began to sleep like in pre-industrial times, in two phases. And where it gets intriguing for creative types today is in between the segments. When those test subjects woke up in the middle of the night, it wasn’t random. Their sleep ended with the end of a REM sleep cycle with an active mind, but still dreamy.
"They would wake up from these dreams in a sort of altered, meditative state and be awake for maybe an hour or two," Wehr says.
That altered, nocturnal state is nearly extinct for most of us, but it is nonetheless, potentially powerful. That state is especially conducive to assimilating the feelings and information that occur in dreams, Wehr says.
So when people were fully inoculated from artificial light, it was a true awakening. "People would sometimes say they felt a kind of crystal clear consciousness when they were awake that was not familiar to them. And it made me wonder if any of us knows what it’s really like to be awake—fully awake," Wehr says.
In a go-go-go world where techies boast of being able to stay up for days coding nonstop, and where putting in extra hours on a project is a badge of honor, this research hints that maybe stashing the tech outside the bedroom is the way to clear your mind and come up with the next big thing.