Supposedly, we use to sleep more— we humans. In the centuries before electricity (and before productivity), when the world outside got dark, we came inside and went to sleep. And we dreamed.
Now, everything has changed. We light up from the moment we wake to the moment we go to sleep. Inside, our world is flooded with incandescence, fluorescence, diodescence, and plasma. Outside, there are fewer stars in the sky, it seems. City lights wash them away, even from great distances.
Most of us rarely experience real darkness.
In the 90’s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr† took a peek at what a winter’s sleep might have been like pre-history. He asked students to experience 14 hours of darkness every night for a month, and after a few weeks paying back their “sleep debt,” they all fell into a consistent pattern which included a state of consciousness very few of us have even glimpsed.
Wehr referred to this new state as “quiet wakefulness,” and what’s striking is how much of it these people soaked up. During the 14 hours of darkness, subjects would spend their first 2 in quiet wakefulness, after which they would quickly fall asleep. Following 4 hours of this “normal sleep,” they would, in the middle of the night, emerge into another period of quiet wakefulness for 2 hours or so. Again, they would slip into another 4 hours of sleep followed by another 2 hours of quiet wakefulness before the light came and they rose from bed.
Some scientists suggest that compressing our sleep schedule to 8 solid hours is part of human evolution. It’s allowed us to be more productive for a longer contiguous stretch during the day, but what have we lost as a result?
During the day, the people in Wehr’s study each expressed they “never felt so awake.” In fact, they were more awake. Measuring their daytime sleepiness revealed their alertness was out of range for normal modern humans.
And then, what about those 6 hours of nighttime quiet wakefulness none of us ever experiences? Wehr’s subjects would emerge from REM sleep, the dream state, into long periods of “peaceful contemplation.”
I have mentioned and will write more about shadow roles, the unconscious parts we play in our lives that for some include such characters as the Martyr, the Trickster, the Warrior, the Soothsayer— the Detonator. How will we get to know our shadows, if not through a conversation with our dreams?
“It is tempting to speculate, that in prehistoric times this arrangement provided a channel of communication between dreams and waking life that has gradually been closed off as humans have compressed and consolidated their sleep. If so, then this alteration might provide a physiological explanation for the observation that modern humans seem to have lost touch with the wellspring of myths and fantasies.”
It’s a good time to wake up to our dreams.
†Thomas Wehr, then chief of the Clinical Psychobiology Branch of the National Institutes of Mental Health, in his pivotal study on sleep patterns, discovered at least two modalities of consciousness rarely experienced by modern humans: quiet, contemplative wakefulness during dark hours, and a completely separate state of heightened wakefulness during daylight hours.