The freedom to sleep

It took a week of false starts, insomniac nights and madly early mornings, but I have finally caught up on my sleep and normalised my caffeine intake. Flying to two funerals and three states probably slowed the recovery down a bit. It was a shitty way to land but it certainly cemented any thoughts I’d been having in the lab about my experience of time being a reflection of my relationship with mortality.

I’ve been following some recent discussions online around napping and productivity with interest. My instinct when I first read these theories was cynicism – capitalism will always work out ways to exploit workers for longer – mixed with curiosity about the potential of more waking hours.

I noticed my spirits flagging over the last few “days” of the study. On release I discovered that these periods were fourteen hours long – ten hours awake, four hours asleep – and although the first couple of hours after waking were productive, and I wasn’t sleepy, there was a hollowing out of myself which I hated. Productivity came at the expense of happiness, identity, will. I felt badly adjusted, struggled to find words and make connections – fatal problems for a writer. Even when I was physically not tired, the process of these fourteen-hour sleep cycles was gruelling, and it left me vulnerable, emotionally wrecked, and obedient.

The ideas that flowed when I was alert in the lab were not always good ideas. Some were false epiphanies, giving me a sense of euphoria until I realised that I had thought them before, or that they should have been obvious. This type of false epiphany is familiar from novel-writing, where ideas seem to store themselves in my subconscious until they are needed. Often writing them down is merely a formality before they are forgotten and either remembered or discarded. There is trust at work here, trust in a process I am not supposed to control. False epiphany is also a term therapists use to describe breakthroughs that aren’t really breakthroughs, and although I don’t think novels are therapeutic, I do think the process is probably analogous.

As a chronically self-aware writer, I have to say I find the napping-is-better-than-sleeping hypothesis starkly sinister. We know so little of what sleep does and are only beginning to be able to explore what we might do without it. In the lab, I felt stripped back, pared down, as though my identity – social, creative, and productive – was being cut away from me, as though I was losing protective layers that were perhaps provided by sleep and solitude. I felt weakened, but still able to work – I was turning into somebody’s ideal prole.

Right now, back at my own desk with an excellent morning’s work behind me, I am certain that there is something essential sleep does to my mind that I just can’t skip. Whether I talk in neurological terms – the pre-frontal cortex and the role of executive function in creative judgement – or psychological ones – the superego’s watchful eye on the id’s impulsive spark – or creative ones – the need for a good critic working alongside the risk-taking artist – there is a balance that needs to be struck, and sleep is how I strike it.

Having said that, I’m theoretically capable now of tuning my mind to a particular mode with the previous night’s rest, depending on whether I’m having ideas, writing first drafts, editing, composing a commissioned review, or blogging. I haven’t tried anything like this yet; I’m too excited about being able to sleep properly again.

Most of us have a trust/faith relationship with our creative impulses. We watch the energy come and go without being able to switch it on or off. I’d love to believe I can take charge of it, not because I want to be more productive, but because it would give me a sense of greater agency in my work. I suspect, however, that any such sense would be a false epiphany, granting only arrogance. Artists make this mistake all the time with drugs and alcohol.

Here’s a little TED bit on the dangers of ‘sleep deprivation one-upmanship.’

We shouldn’t confuse quantity of work with quality. Or the meaning of the work we do with how much we sell. Our bodies and our minds can’t be reduced to functions in a machine. Sleep isn’t only a function of the body but one of the great mysteries of consciousness, a symbolic, as well as a physical process. Sleep has a complex and shifting meaning, as do human beings. Part of that is sleep’s role in privacy, its role as a protective layer for the inner life. That no-one can get inside your head yet makes sleep the last place where surveillance doesn’t work (even with electrodes, the readings are general observations, not specific information).

Even though the body can feel like a dictatorship, and sleep a bully, perhaps the rest we take from reality each night is what unchains us: from bullying bosses, and from the demands of our labours. To sleep in my own bed and let the need for rest take over is to be free. And it is a freedom I will fight for, just like I would fight for the freedom to write.

I have an idea for a dystopia, set in a future which has done away with sleep. A future run on the demands of corporations, not of bodies. I’m pretty sure it’s a good idea and not a false epiphany. But I think I’ll sleep on it for a while, just in case.

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