Wynken, Blynken and Nod

It’s OK to sleep differently! After all those years of feeling guilty, weird and defective for not wanting to sleep at sensible times like sensible people, I finally realised.

Since the advent of street lighting, indoor electric lighting and office/factory hours it has been fashionable to sleep monophasically. People are awake during daylight hours, carry on with their lives during the evening and go to bed at their preferred time – 10, o’clock, 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock. Anything else tends to be thought of as insomnia, and people who don’t or can’t follow the standard pattern are imagined to be pale and haggard creatures with big black circles under their eyes. No doubt they spend the night watching dreadful films, ruining themselves with online casino gambling or slogging through piles of ironing.. They certainly aren’t going to be up to putting in a good day’s work.

It wasn’t till I Googled ‘unusual sleep patterns’ that I discovered one or two things.

Throughout history, up to the beginning of the 20th Century in fact, it was expected that people might sleep polyphasically. Had I lived in the middle ages, my own sleep pattern would have been the norm. In those days people went to bed when it got dark – mostly because candles were expensive and the only source of light. They might sleep for 2 – 3 hours, wake for another 2 – 3, then sleep again. Even today, when laboratory subjects are put on a restricted light regime, and once they have caught up on the enormous ‘sleep debt’ that most of us have accumulated, this is the pattern they tend to settle into.

But what on earth did people do with those odd hours in the middle of the night, between ‘First Sleep’ and ‘Second Sleep’? It seems they used them sensibly. Often people stayed in bed, or in their bedrooms, but spent the time in prayer or contemplation. Sometimes they would read, or write. Consider a popular French song, often used to teach the guitar, Au Clair de la Lune. As usual, all the poetry is lost in translation, but here it is:

By the light of the moon, my friend Pierrot
Lend me your pen for to write a word.
My candle is dead, I have no light left.
Open up your door, for the love of God.

Because another thing people might do during these ‘between’ hours was to visit with friends and neighbours who were similarly wakeful.

Another thing that people might use that time for was – you knew I was going to get round to this, didn’t you? – making babies. Particularly the working-classes, apparently, who had a high birth-rate.

There are many other varieties of polyphasic sleep – some people divide the night up into four, for instance.

There are also what you might call the ‘Mrs Thatcher” regimes. Mrs Thatcher was a British Prime Minister who claimed, at least, only to require two – or was it four? – hours of sleep a night. It was all part of her image as the Iron Lady, of course. One could imagine her, far into the night, fiercely plotting political strategies and perusing state papers. This is more a sort of ‘power napping’ and involves smaller amounts of sleep in all – not something that attracts me, but then I’ve never been much good with rules, self-discipline and such.

Apparently these are known as

Everyman – 3.5 hours core sleep + 3 x 20 minute naps throughout the day.

Dymaxion – 4 x 30 minute naps throughout the day (2 hours sleep in total!)

Uberman – 6 to 8 equidistant sleeps of 20 minutes each.

Perhaps it is useful to do this if you are in a high-pressured job like Mrs T’s – and as long as you can sleep, instantly, in broad daylight and when it tells you to on your timetable. Otherwise it seems easier just to go with what comes naturally.

I tend to be like the cats nowadays. When I get bored, I sleep. If I don’t feel well, I sleep. When I wake up, I have cup of tea and get on with something. This only turns into ‘insomnia’ when you start stressing about it and frantically trying to sleep. Don’t try. Go with the flow.

At one point I considered becoming fully nocturnal – a sort of Owl Woman. The idea quite appealed to me, there was something witchy and romantic about it. I have very noisy neighbours and for quite a while after they moved in my life was not worth living. I need quiet. I am a quiet sort of person. Indeed, that may be part of the reason why they make so much noise – they can’t hear me through the ultra-thin walls of our semi-detached, so they assume I can’t hear them – even when they are throwing gigantic drinks parties till two in the morning, Alexa supplying them with an endless stream of high-volume eighties and nineties hits, dogs barking, people banging on the walls, mega-arguments that spill out into the back (and occasionally front) garden. Etcetera.

So if they decided to throw one of these parties – which tended to start with a swarm of cars cluttering up our road around six in the evening, doors banging, etc – I would retreat to bed. I discovered if I did this before they started to wind me up, I could sleep quite easily, even though it was still daylight. I’d wake up at two, or three, and all would be silent again as they slept, cultivating their hangovers. I could catch up on the News on i-player, drink tea and occasionally even rough out one of these posts. Turning day permanently into night and night into day did seem to be an option, for coping with it. I would adapt.

Ultimately, though, fully nocturnal wasn’t practical. During the day there are deliveries, people tend to ring up, appointments have to be attended. Also, you do need some sunlight. It would be pretty gloomy living your whole life under electric light, the windows just squares of blackness of various sizes, with occasionally a moon. And of course you’re consuming more light and heat than you need to, especially in winter.

I realise this may be more difficult if you have children, or have to stick to some kind of rigid shift system for work, but the main thing is not to conform to monophasic sleeping from sheer lack of imagination. As far as possible, given your circumstances and the seasons, heat and daylight patterns of the country you live in – do your own thing.

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon.
This way and that she peers and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees…

‘Silver’ – Walter de la Mare

4 thoughts on “Wynken, Blynken and Nod

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