Friday, August 7
My father always took a post-lunch nap. This seemed peculiar, even quaint to me—something old people did, though he was hardly old. Or maybe it was a holdover from a more-rural society. I didn’t know.
He would come home from work for a quick and simple lunch, then a half-hour nap. I couldn’t do it. I asked him: How do you fall asleep? He said I should just lie really, really still and I’d drift off. But I couldn’t—even in early grades at school, when you were told to bring in a little mat from home and nap time was a regular part of the school day.
Now, the pandemic lockdown with its erasure of all meaningful tasks is encouraging me to reconsider. A post-lunch nap now seems eminently sensible—and what else is there to do anyway?
A little online research suggests that our current sleep patterns are very much a product of history. The ancients apparently practiced “biphasic sleep”—two periods of sleep with a spell of alertness in between. During the middle-of-the-night period of wakefulness, the ancients attended prayers, had sex, maybe did a few chores, and so forth. But, of course, the absence of much light placed a limit on activity.
The advent of the industrial revolution required workers to keep to a regular and often grueling schedule. Up with the 5 a.m. factory bells, labor for a 12-hour day, then off to home and early bed so you’d be ready for another day.
Better lighting of streets and residences made longer periods of wakefulness possible. By the end of the 1600s, fifty of Europe’s major cities had candle or oil street lighting, and electric street lighting came to many cities in the late 1800s. (Manhattan had electrical “arc” lighting on its streets by the 1870s, and electrical systems in private houses appeared there in the 1880s, first in the domicile of banker J.P. Morgan.) By the 1920s, doctors were discouraging a biphasic sleep schedule, instead favoring a single eight-hour period of rest. But in Latin America and parts of Europe, biphasic schedules with a built-in post-lunch siesta, are still common.
Apparently, if people aren’t compelled to do otherwise, they gravitate to the two-period sleep pattern.
According to the BBC, in the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr subjected a group of subjects to a daily 14-hour dose of darkness. By the fourth week of the experiment, a distinct sleeping pattern emerged, during which the subjects would doze for four hours, then wake for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep period.
The seasonal variation of sunlight surely has a lot to do with sleep patterns as well. And then there is noise: There’s really no cessation of noise in New York City, with garbage trucks, sirens, and pneumatic drillers liable to punch holes in any sleeper’s schedule. So when we go back to the city in September, we’ll have to revise our sleep patterns all over again.
Dinner: chicken paprikash, noodles, and a green salad with avocado.
Entertainment: Netflix’ offbeat Belgian crime drama The Break (La Treve)