Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Confessions of a biphasic sleeper

I confess that I am a biphasic and sometimes a polyphasic sleeper. I have never really tried to sleep for six or more hours at a stretch, the widely recommended mode in our predominantly monophasic sleeping culture. Typically, I sleep (or at least lie dormant) for two distinct periods of four hours and two hours in a 24-hour cycle. Depending on my travels and other factors, the shorter sleep phase may be an afternoon nap before a longer night sleep or a morning lie-in following it. I do not suffer insomnia because I don't try to sleep unless I feel like it. I almost never need an alarm clock or a wake-up call. Traveling between time zones does not bother me. In any time zone, I am nearly always awake between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., one of my favorite hours. I am told this is the time, actuarially, when more people die and more are born than in any other hour in the cycle of 24.
When resting in bed, I spend as much time as possible in a half-sleep or half-wake state, in the hypnagogic zone (approaching sleep) or the hypnopompic zone (after sleep). This liminal state of consciousness is immensely fertile. It presents spontaneous images that can be the portals for lucid dream adventures. It opens psychic perception and is a place of encounter with inner guides. It is a state in which we hatch new ideas and creative connections. My approach to sleep and dreaming may seem exotic to many in a society that is suffering serious dream deprivation and in general does not reward its members for recalling and sharing dreams. However my habits would be recognized and approved by most of our ancestors, cross-culturally.
For hundreds of thousands of years, humans thought that what the pushers of sleep meds promise – an uninterrupted night of seven or eight hours’ sleep – was an unnatural and undesirable thing. Experiments by a team led by Dr Thomas Wehr at the National Institutes of Mental Health in Bethesda have supplied compelling evidence of how our technology has ripped us from our natural cycle. Deprived of artificial lighting for several weeks, the typical subject evolved the following pattern: lying awake in bed for an hour or two, then four hours sleep, then 2-3 hours of “non-anxious wakefulness” followed by a second sleep before waking for the day's activities. One of the most exciting findings in Wehr’s study involved the endocrinology of the night watch. The interval between first sleep and second sleep is characterized by elevated levels of prolactin, a pituitary hormone best-known for helping hens to brood contentedly above their eggs for long periods. Wehr concluded that the night watch can produce benign states of altered consciousness not unlike meditation. [1} Wehr and his team put their subjects on the Paleolithic plan, without alternatives to electrical light such as candles or fire or oil lamps. The Paleolithic two-sleeps cycle wasn’t only a stone age phenomenon; it was characteristic of how people spent their nights until gas lighting and then electricity became widespread. A seventeenth century Scottish legal deposition describes a weaver as “haveing gotten his first sleip and awaiking furth thairof.” Sleep historian Roger Ekirch says that “until the modern era, up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness midway through the night interrupted the rest of most Western Europeans” - and presumably most other people - so that “consolidated sleep, such as we today experience, is unnatural.” [2] This may help to explain the extent to which so many  in our urbanized society are out of nature and out of touch with dreaming. “Segmented sleep” was the norm for our ancestors until quite recently, as it remains for some indigenous peoples today. Like Virgil and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Tiv of central Nigeria speak of “first sleep” and “second sleep”. They wake at any time during the night and will talk to anyone in the hut who is also awake - often about their dreams.[3] Most interesting, the state “twixt sleepe and wake” that the French called dorveille was widely regarded as an excellent time to birth new ideas. In 1769, the artful London tradesman Christopher Pinchbeck advertised a device called a “Nocturnal Remembrancer”, a parchment tablet inside a box with a slit to guide the writing hand in the dark to enable “philosophers, statesmen, poets, divines and every person of genius, business or reflection” to secure the “flights and thoughts which so frequently occur in the course of a meditating, wakeful night.” Biphasic or polyphasic sleep might help us to recover the "perceptual diversity" that anthropologist and economic development specialist Tara Lumpkin observes is woefully lacking in contemporary mainstream Western cultures. "When a culture restrains perceptual diversity, that same culture reduces human adapatibility, which, in turn, leads to human beings living unsustainably...Coming from developed Western cultures, which highly value monophasic consciousness and the scientific method, we may not even be aware of what we are losing. It is altered states of consciousness, which speak through symbols and intuition such as dreaming, imagining and meditating, that often allow us to grasp the whole in a way that the scientific method can never provide."[4]
    Modern culture, through the suppression of natural circadian cycles and a disregard of dreaming, may have fulfilled for many Thomas Middleton's complaint that we have rendered ourselves “disanulled of our first sleep, and cheated of our dreams and fantasies.” [5]

Perhaps you, too, will find it helpful to wake up to the fact that it's okay to be awake in the middle of the night. While sleep deprivation can be a serious problem, we do better when we stop confusing being awake in the middle of the night with "insomnia" and learn to have fun when the rest of the world is sleeping (and thinks we should be asleep). And then, whenever possible, plunge back into dreaming.

1. Nathalie Angier, "Modern Life Suppresses Ancient Body Rhythms", New York Times, March 14, 1995.
2. A. Roger Ekirch, "Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles", American Historical Review 106, no. 2 (April 2001) 343-386.
3. Paul Bohannon, "Concepts of Time among the Tiv of Nigeria", Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, no. 9 (Autumn, 1953) 253.
Tara W. Lumpkin, "Perceptual Diversity: Is Polyphasic Consciousness Necessary for Global Survival?" in Anthropology of Consciousness 12 (1-2) 37-70. 

5. Thomas Middleton, "The Black Book", in The Works of Thomas Middleton ed. A.H. Bullen (New York: AMS Press, 1964) 8:14

Art: Henri Rousseau, "The Dream" (1910)


Rob-bear said...

I find I often get four "blocks" of sleep in a night; maybe a couple of hours each time. I'm not sure how much REM sleep I get — I think I'd be happier if one of the blocks was longer than an hour and a half or so.

Robert Moss said...

I wake many times during the night, so "biphasic" is an understatement. I find the drifty states between different sleep segments highly creative and often the portal to lucid dreaming. Recent sleep/dream research confirms that we are actually dreaming most of the time not only in REM sleep. It is possible, if one can sustain relaxed attention, or attentive relaxation, to attain continuity of consciousness through many alternations between sleep/dream/hypnagogic states - and leave the night refreshed!

Fairie Losopher said...

Last year for a few months (2? 3?), I decided to do 'lights off before dusk' so that i was inviting my body to take up this 2-phase sleep cycle (i'd just read how monks did it). It took 3 weeks before the expected cycle began...and it was true to the guide: sleep (lots of action-
y nightmarish dreams), wake (for two hours, not anxious, just drifting), then back to sleep for some very 'clear white light, pleasant, harmonious dreaming) before waking. I really loved this period. To help my body adjust, come dusk, I'd sit near an open window and listen to the cicadas etc - all those dusk sounds. Your article makes me think its time to get back to this ritual. It was nourishing.

karla fankhauser said...

From a darker side of this, I started sleeping more during the day and staying up at nights because of night terrors. I had night terrors that woke me up for years, but I went through a spell at the end of 2013 when the terrors came night and day, but they were worse at night, so I stayed up nights and worked on house repairs to keep my conscious mind awake, I think as protection of my subconscious that seemed to be under attack at that time.
Not all the entities we encounter in the astral plane are friendly and so I can see why some of the cultures such as those in Indonesia consider the sea (what I consider to represent the astral plane) to be where the demons and monsters reside, the watery salt water sea (drinking sea water causes hallucinations and death) of the astral plane, where we have to fight the monsters in our nightmares. Now, my dreams are more healing and instructive and I am very grateful for this.

Robert Moss said...

Dear Karla, I use the term "night terrors" for scary situations that remain rather formless, without the dream content of a nightmare (which, for me, is actually an interrupted dream). I always suspect that formless night terrors arise from a disturbed psychic environment, and that the solution is to do some spiritual cleansing and set up simple and effective psychic defenses. There is practical common sense guidance on this in chapter 10 of my book ACTIVE DREAMING. I am amazed by the demonization of the ocean in the tradition you quote. Throughout most of human history, salt water has been regarded as the great spiritual cleanser, which by my experience remains true. Of course, humans have also been dumping pollutants - physical as well as psychic - into the seas for a long time. Let me note quickly that the sovereign remedy for nightmares (as opposed to night terrors), in my experience, is to learn to face the challenge on its own ground, if necessary by reentering the original dreamscape.

Sweet Georgia Pam said...

A few years ago, during a time when I was inexplicably wide awake around 2am, I decided to try and remove the messaging that I needed to be asleep and would regret getting out of bed because it would only make tomorrow miserable. I just let go of that thought and replaced it with, my body is needing something different than sleep tonight. I figured that replacing the one thought with the other couldn't hurt since I was awake either way.

It worked wonders for me! I allowed myself to get out of bed, wander around, write, eat, enjoy the stillness and then when I felt like it, I went back to sleep. I was really surprised when I felt just fine the next day.

It doesn't happen often anymore, but when it does, I just let it be and listen to my internal signals for what is needed in the moment. Thank you for validating my experience with some history! :)