There’s little irony that the man who forever disrupted our internal clocks wasn’t a big fan of sleep. In 1922, Thomas Edison wrote in his diary:
The man who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully awake — he has only different degrees of doze throughout the twenty-four hours. We are always hearing people talk about “loss of sleep” as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunity.”
Edison wasn’t kidding. He even invented the lightbulb to liberate us from the chains of nature’s light and dark cycles. Thanks to his aversion towards “lost time,” today we have the power to decide when our days should start and end.
In 1606, Shakespeare wrote how sleep was the “chief nourisher life’s feast,” capturing the period’s sentiment that our diurnal nature was something to embrace. But as history unfolds, we see culture slowly shift away from this idea and take a stance against sleep.
Napoleon Bonaparte was asked how much sleep one should get and said, “Six for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool.” During her reign as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher declared, “Sleep is for wimps!” Throughout the 20th century, it seems as though sleep was a habit not compatible with greatness.
“Money never sleeps.” -Gordon Gekko
Fast forward to present day and you’ll have a hard time finding a thought leader who doesn’t list “plenty of sleep” as part of their peak performance toolkit. There are hundreds of studies proving lack of sleep is, in fact, a “calamity” that can make us stressed, fat, and dead. We now accept sleep as something needed just to compete with modern day Edisons.
The problem is history’s disdain and our modern embrace are just two sides of the same how-to-productivity coin. We still don’t like sleep. We’ve simply accepted it as necessary. Like the chore of filling up the car with gas on the way home, we “gotta feed the pump.”
Sleep is now filed in the pantheon of Human Optimization under the category: “Productivity Hack.”
It’s silly at this point to argue against the idea that a good night’s rest is the answer to more productive days (sorry, Edison). But going to sleep is more than a mindless dip into oblivion.
Sleep is how we flirt with the flowers and tangle with the weeds of our subconscious. It’s when we float on the nocturnal brink of yesterday and today that our imaginations come alive.
Sleep is not something that must be dealt with. It’s a portal to inspiration, creativity, and connection to ourselves and the world around us.
To sleep is human.
The Gates Of Inspiration
There is a mysterious state that occurs at the crossroads of being awake and falling asleep called hypnagogia. Taken from the Greek words “sleep” and “guide,” hypnagogia is the initial phase of sleep where alpha and theta brain waves swirl, causing inspiration and imagination to collide.
It’s here — at the gates of slumber — where million dollar ideas are born and creative carrots are dangled just out of reach.
Thomas Edison talked a big game about only needing “three to four hours” of sleep a night, yet he was aware of the imagination superhighway began at the brink of consciousness.
Edison being Edison, invented a way to capture the semi-hallucinatory state by taking a nap in a chair while holding a steel ball. The second he’d fall asleep the ball would drop waking him up immediately. He would then return to his work in a suspended hypnagogic state without any “lost time” or post-nap grogginess.
Salvador Dali also used these one second micro-naps to ride the wave of heightened creativity, taking mid-day naps with a spoon in his hand.
Setting a trap for subconscious brilliance with steel balls and silver spoons may be clever, but what’s important is how this underscores the necessity of sleep for the creative process.
The brain and body need rest, but the imagination needs to dance. And our muscles of creativity prefer a circadian tango when no one is watching.
In The Absence Of Caress
Believed to be visions of the future, memories from past lives, and messages from God, dreams have always been one of nature’s dirty little secrets.
In the book, The 24 Hour Mind, author Rosalind Cartwright explains how dreaming regulates our emotions and helps us make sense of the world around us.
“We stay busy [during the day], but in the inaction of sleep we turn inward to review and evaluate the implications of the day.” -Cartwright
All the challenges we face throughout the day — the stress of a deadline, the little comment that didn’t sit right, the weight of the world itself — pile up and create emotional charges. What we dream then, is based on new emotions being mended with old memories to diffuse these charges before they become real problems.
Like laundry at the end of a cycle, the emotional baggage of the day needs to be sorted, folded, and put in its proper place. Dreaming irons out the pesky details of the day before they have a chance to register as wrinkles on our moods and behaviors.
The Reverie Of Waking
When black night turns to blue morning and the soft light of day hits our face, there is a single instance of waking reverie. A moment where our consciousness walks freely in the realm of dreamy illusions, as if entering a forbidden door, only to be pushed out into the morning air of reality.
It’s that peek into our subconscious scenery that lingers under our eyelids, making us long for just, “Five more minutes.” But dreams, like desires, are elusive. The more we chase the faster they slip away. As we feel our skin against the sheets and our legs against our lover, we emerge into the newness of morning more human than when we first laid down.
Recharged, reconnected, and reborn.
Sleep isn’t a prescription for efficiency or productivity or more busyness. It’s a robust part of life that fuels imagination, connection, and gives us a clear view of what’s worth accomplishing in the first place.
To sleep is human, to dream is divine. And in the reverie of waking, we find what it means to be truly alive.
Hats off to BrainPickings.org for the rabbit hole of research.
And to the late writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in 1835 wrote of sleep:
“In the depths of every heart, there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, and revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide. But sometimes, and oftenest at midnight, those dark receptacles are flung wide open. In an hour like this, when the mind has a passive sensibility, but no active strength; when the imagination is a mirror, imparting vividness to all ideas, without the power of selecting or controlling them; then pray that your griefs may slumber, and the brotherhood of remorse not break their chain.”
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