I like to sit on my front porch stoop at night in the warm seasons. I watch the changing skies, listen to the singing insects, and make note of the comings and goings of folks in the neighborhood. During the cold months, a rear-facing window, that overlooks the river, serves as my observation post.
I suppose I enjoy contemplating nighttime and the very early morning because that is when most people are tucked into their beds, oblivious to the calm beauty that surrounds them. Sometimes the beauty is so profound that I wish I didn’t need to sleep. At other times, I’m very grateful for the soothing gift of sleep.
The darkness of the night is just as necessary as the brilliance of the day for our lives, because we evolved on the surface of a rotating spheroid completing orbits around a star. This simple fact is simply amazing when you think about it. Ten days ago, humanity celebrated the completion of one orbit and the beginning of the next. How many of us thought about our orbits on January first? How many of us extrapolate that thought to meanderings about our day/night cycle as living organisms?
The subject of sleep is universally interesting because all of us must rest. Sleep is intimately tied to the very condition of being human beings. There are no other creatures that sleep as soundly as humans who are safely enclosed in homes, taking their rest on comfortable beds.
Fish sleep through transparent eyelids that enable them to detect danger if it approaches. Cattle and horses sleep while standing. Even our dogs and cats sleep lightly, but they do sleep often throughout the day.
I read an article on the Internet yesterday that said human brains evolved, in part, due to us leaving the treetops and taking shelter elsewhere. Our chimpanzee cousins sleep about eleven-and-a-half hours per night while homo sapiens are asleep approximately seven hours. Not only do we have shorter sleep cycles, our sleep is deeper, too.
A study by evolutionary biologists, Dr. David Samson and Dr. Charles Nunn, postulates that our common ancestors slept on the branches of trees. Due to the fact that trees are precarious places, it was difficult to attain REM sleep. It is REM sleep that has many benefits for our brains. Biologists have noted that all primates weighing more than 60-pounds make an effort to choose larger, more substantial trees and make beds out of pliable materials. Instinctively, we primates want to satisfy our need for deep sleep.
“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace.” –Victor Hugo
During the mandatory darkness of night, there is hidden vibrance and growth. Our brains and bodies become cleansed and healed so we can take on the obvious, busy hours of daytime.
Wakefulness and sleep are both essential to life. Only humans purposely try to cheat the cycle. Like most other animals, humans evolved to naturally drop off to sleep without artificial aids. The sky darkens, the mind signals that it’s time to sleep.
I became more interested in the subject of sleep long ago, when I became a shift worker. During most of my life, I was assigned to perform during the graveyard shift. There is a peculiar joy to be had if a person surrenders to nighttime work.
There is also a struggle to adjust to such a schedule, especially if you are young. I adjusted easily within the time span of a few weeks. It didn’t take very long until the appearance of sunrise triggered the urge for me to sleep. I was aware of the rush of life around me, the sounds of freeway traffic in the distance, the laughing of children in the neighborhood. All this sounded flat and mundane as I drifted off to sleep each morning. On weekends and at vacation times, I maintained the same schedule in order to better take advantage of my off duty recuperation needs.
One year I spent a month in India. By maintaining the same hourly schedule on the opposite part of the Earth I was able to easily sleep during the darkness and awaken refreshed for the daytime. There was a very slight jetlag, but that was easily overcome. Likewise, the transition to day sleeping after returning home was not a problem.
Now that I have retired from the conventional workforce, my sleep cycles conform more closely to those that humans have evolved to utilize. In the process, the damage of all those years of working graveyard is healing. Yes, the joy of working nighttimes came at the expense of harming my health. The regeneration and healing have been taking place the past few years.
The sensations of the daytime living me are much different than the nighttime living me. I guess that’s why I so enjoy the dark hours of very early morning. There seems to be more balance and naturalness in this cycle.