But, you say, “Kirk, if I feel fine, and I’m getting through my days, what exactly am I missing?” A lot; a lot, actually.
When we sleep, our brains flush harmful neurotoxins, we consolidate memories, we reinforce learning, we repair our bodies, we fight off infection and disease, we replenish hormones and neurotransmitters, and in general, we put our body in a physiological state to be able to thrive the next day. And we also dream. Sometimes amazing technicolor fantasy adventures. And many psychologists believe that we actually work through our cognitive and emotional struggles with dreams. Does this kind of sound like the perfect drug?
So why aren’t we addicted to this drug called “sleep”?
Well, here’s one theory: We know that as early as 200 years ago, humans generally slept in two blocks, about four to five hours each, with an hour or two of wakefulness in between. So about 10 to 12 hours total time in bed.
But with the industrial revolution and the invention of the lightbulb, things changed. Time became money. And we began treating our bodies like machines. And so we formed this assembly line-like operation to consolidate that time in bed down to about eight hours at best, thus allowing us to be productive for 16 consecutive hours. And now we want to make those 16 into 18, or even 20. But we’re not machines.
Our cells have embedded clocks in them that refuse to adapt to our desire to push through our need for sleep. In fact, the principles of evolution reinforce our need for sleep. Consider how vulnerable a sleeping human was 20,000 years ago. If we could have evolved to sleep less, natural selection would have favored that. But here we are, 20,000 years evolved, denying that we need sleep. Denying the unpalatable truth that we are not machines, and we can’t work around the clock. Not if you’re a doctor, or a CEO, or a teacher, and not even if you’re a Navy SEAL.
So, what’s it going to take to collectively wake us up, to shift our awareness or values? What is it going to take to end our denial? It’s going to require that all of us accept personal responsibility for our part in the shift of social priorities. It’s going to require that we all take a leap of faith. And I say, let’s do that right now.
We can’t change the world overnight. But we can change our world every night. And when it gets to be too tough, too tempting, we can remember our surgeon and his shot glass. If we want the highest quality of life, if we want to perform our best, be the best parent, be the best partner, if we want to live the longest, healthiest, happiest life possible, we have a simple and readily available solution: better sleep.
50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. electrified the nation, and inspired a movement with four simple words: “I have a dream.” We, today, have that same right to dream. But in order to dream, we have got to give our bodies and our minds their due rest.
When we make it acceptable for America to sleep again, we will make it possible to truly dream again.