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Friday, April 26, 2013

(Not) Sleeping On It

Sleep-wise, I've had an abysmal week. I suffer from a kind of insomnia known as early morning wakefulness, which means that I have no trouble getting to sleep, but staying asleep is a real problem. For the past six months or more, I've been waking up in the mornings at 4:00 or 4:30, unable to return to sleep (this is a cycle I've had periodically for more than 20 years).

However, this week my wake-up time has inched its way into the unreasonable zone. First I was waking up at 3:30, and then 3:00, then 2:30, and the night before last I was up at 1:30, just 2 1/2 hours after I'd gone to bed. Up and awake and alert, with no chance of going back to sleep.

Today I listened to a podcast on sleep disorders, hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences' podcast Science & the City. The opening segment was with journalist David Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, who was inspired to delve into this topic because of his own sleepwalking issues. Randall discussed how the invention of the lightbulb has divorced modern sleep patterns from the cycle of the sun, by which our brains and sleep cycle are naturally regulated, as shown by experiments in which subjects are sequestered in an environment lighted to copy the sun's cycle. In those cases, sujects fall asleep just after sundown and wake up around daybreak.

However, there's one more behavior these subjects exhibit that I didn't anticipate. They tend to wake up around midnight or one in the morning, and stay awake for about an hour before returning to bed. (The natural phenomenon of this "first and second sleep" are documented in the Canterbury Tales and in 16th century French physicians' manuals.) During this awake time, subjects reported feeling quite good and indulging in "me" time. Researcher who drew their blood found the subjects' exhibited heightened levels of pro-lactin, a hormone which is linked to a feeling of contentment.

This was news to me...instead of feeling robbed of my sleep and desperate to return to it, I will now try to think of my middle-of-the-night awake time as an indulgence of free time for myself, a biologically-programmed way for me to get the downtime I am definitely not getting during the day (and perhaps that is why my body/mind keeps waking me in the night, for forced downtime?).

Coincidentally, today I also read an article on the Writer's Digest website, entitled "Do You Dream In Paragraphs? Mine Your Dreams For Writing Ideas," about ways to get creative ideas from your dreams. I've written about this in the past on this blog, so I won't cover that territory today, but if you are interested, check out the article at Writer's Digest.  As for me, I haven't fixed any poetry dilemmas in my wakefulness this past week, but I was able to solve a problem I've been having with an analytical task for my linguistics course. That liminal time between awake and asleep (which I've doubled with my first and second sleeps now!) is  a boon to the mind's flexibility--I'll remember that too when I undoubtedly wake in the middle of the night tonight!

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