To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Lawrence Block wrote a series of books about a man named Evan Tanner. This is not Block’s most popular mystery series by any stretch, but it’s my personal favorite. Don’t pick these up if you aren’t willing to do some serious suspending of disbelief. I am and I believe these books are worth it.

Evan was injured during the Korean War and the sleep center of his brain was damaged. As a result, he does not sleep. Ever. He can’t. I love this because it explains how he has been able to learn a ridiculous number of languages, read about history and current events in many different countries, and basically just know so much more than I do about anything. He has six to eight more hours everyday than I do!

I am jealous of Evan, even when Block writes scenes into the books that show how challenging this can be because Evan has to pretend to sleep at times to keep up appearances with others. Just lying in bed for extended periods does not appeal to me. But the trade off would be worth it.

As a parent and as a teacher, sleep is something I think about way too often. My husband and I just chatted tonight about our daughters’ bedtime and whether or not we thought it was working for them (and, to be honest, for us). I have many conversations with parents about when their children go to bed. In fact, for homework every night one of the things my kiddos write down is, “Bed by 8.”

There seems to be a lot of research supporting my obsession with sleep. KQED in San Francisco had a brief thing about how our students need more sleep. Basically we think they’re getting plenty of sleep but they aren’t.

Ed Week covered a study suggesting the supreme importance of regular bedtimes for young children in regards to their behavior.

And the BBC wrote about the way in which sleep cleanses our brains of toxins. This opens up lots of questions about how much sleep impacts brain disorders as well as more common behavior or learning challenges.

Reading all of these is reassuring and validating. However, I’ve had conversations with folks I greatly respect who grew up in other cultures who have told me that bedtimes didn’t exist. Kids went to bed when they were tired. It seemed to work, at least in their eyes.

So I have to wonder, has our society’s focus on sleep and bedtimes impacted our beliefs about this? Have we created structures that mean we require more structured sleep? Or are consistent bedtimes and a certain amount of sleep truly critical? 

2 replies on “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”

  1. Dahlia says:

    Love, love, love this topic! Haha! So…some thoughts…
    a) do our kids need more sleep because they are more stressed out? I am not comparing them to children who work or are in extreme conditions but apple for adorable little apple, are our kids simply exhausted from being a kid here?
    b) I really struggle with taking one aspect of life (such as sleep) and removing it from the zillion factors that make up our existence. We can’t look at just that when we consider things like behavior, etc…I am guessing that in the U.S. at least, lack of regular bedtimes might also coincide with a lot more key factors that impact education: family stability both in terms of family members who reside at home, working hours of the adults, having a place to sleep, etc…How much do other factors correlate / cause the sleep issues themselves?
    c) Are kids really too tired for school or are they too tired for the insane demands we have placed upon them that are often developmentally inappropriate? Would they be just as tired playing or doing something else? Are they yawning and closing their eyes because their young bodies are not intended to sit still for long periods of time?
    d) I really have no answers but am fascinated by how things that seems “scientific” and cut and dry like hours of sleep or foods eaten are so intertwined with so many other factors that we can’t really isolate them!

  2. Tara says:

    The whole 8’ish hours of uninterrupted sleep per night is a very recent and western invention. It’s interesting to read about segmented sleepand how we don’t really follow the natural human rhythm anymore. Like a lot of things in western culture, we obsess about something and then think we can manufacture it better than nature.

    When I started getting insomnia about 15 years ago–the kind of insomnia where I could fall asleep, but would wake up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night–I was really freaked out. I never had trouble sleeping until then. And then I learned that it wasn’t a big thing. Instead of fussing about it, like tonight when I was wide awake at 2:30 am, I just get up and do something for a bit. Wash dishes, fold laundry, watch a movie.

    I do think that the research on the amount of sleep is important. But sometimes I wonder if we’re still trying to fit it into our context of what we think is “normal.” For us, that looks like an 8-hour work day, three meals, and errands/hobbies. We don’t just stop and sleep when we’re tired and are active when we’re ready to be awake. But a herder in the Kalahari, or a nomadic group or Amazonian tribe that don’t use electricity, and others can let things happen when it makes sense and is probably closer to how we’re hard wired.

    Rest is important. Sleep is important. But we have to recognize that living in this culture means those things come at a cost. Not sure how to change that.

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