Of all my holiday reading, the book that impressed the most was Counting Sheep by Paul Martin, which convincingly argues that we should all get more sleep. The statistics Martin details show how tiredness can be just as bad for your mental and physical well-being as drunkeness. He waxes lyrically about lucid dreaming, REM erections and the different phases.
One sleep phenomena he completely ignores is Polyphasic sleep, a practice whereby masochists attempt to live on 6 half hour naps a day, regularly spaced out. The history of polyphasic sleep is littered with unsubstantiated claims, with Leonardo Da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin falsely enlisted. Buckminster Fuller and Steve Fossett are perhaps the most famous practitioners, the first using it in order to get more done and the second because if he didn’t then his balloon might crash. As you can imagine, polyphasic sleep has got a reputation as uberman sleep and self-help obsessives like Steve Pavlina have tried it out. This week, BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnball has been undergoing a polyphasic sleep experiment, with very limited results. The problem has been that he hasn’t got anything he particularly wants to do with the time and even if he had, would it be worth running against human nature?
For behind all such experiments is a behaviouristic belief that man can overcome his biological nature. That circadian rhythms can be altered without any damage. How on earth does this belief still linger? People who work nightshifts have higher obesity, smoking, cardiovascular problem rates. More details of that here.
Talking of sleep, in the library this afternoon a skinhead with penetrating steely blue eyes took the book out. I told him how much I had enjoyed the book and its recommendation of getting enough sleep. With a mechanical voice he replied:
“I haven’t slept in four days. I’ve started nodding off in the car. And when I try to sleep there’s always something at the back of my mind where, as soon as I think I’m about to get to sleep, I suddenly wake.”
“Maybe you should tell yourself to wake yourself up and then, by reverse psychology, you won’t.”
“Psychology?” He said bitterly. “Don’t talk to me about psychology. I studied it and look at me now. I wish I’d never read a word of psychology.”
And with that he left.