October 16, 2012

Two Sleeps Each Night May Be Better Than One

I've often mentioned that my favorite part of day now is the time I spend "meditating" around 5am. Only part of that time is spent in traditional breathing-in, breathing-out meditation. I stretch and do muscle tensing-and-relaxing exercises, while seated. I often just let my thoughts wander. This early-morning time is both relaxing and idea-generating. And I have no trouble going back to sleep after this break.

Now, thanks to a recent article by David Randall in the New York Times, I find I've accidentally reverted to what some regard as a normal, natural split-sleep cycle. For many years, we've been led to believe that the best sleep was a full, uninterrupted eight hours.

In the Times article, Virginia Tech history professor A. Rodger Ekirch said he found references to "split sleep" when he began studying sleep. A character in the Canterbury Tales, for example, decides to go back to sleep after her "firste sleep." A doctor in England wrote that the time between the "first sleep" and the "second sleep" was the best time for study and reflection.

Thomas A. Wehr, a psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Health, recently conducted an experiment in which subjects were deprived of artificial light and spent the night without electricity, like everyone from the beginning of time. At first, the study subjects slept through the night, but then began to experience the same segmented sleep Dr. Ekirch found referenced in historical records.

The subjects came to like experiencing nighttime in this new way. They looked forward to the time in the middle of the night for deep thinking of all kinds -- maybe simple self-reflection, perhaps planning to get a jump on the next day's activities. Sounds familiar!

It's tough to shift from our long-held belief that the best sleep is long and unbroken. Luckily for me, accepting interrupted sleep is much easier when you're retired and no longer need to "rise and shine" to get to work on time. I enjoy my early morning breaks more, knowing I can get my "second sleep" by using the "secret handshake" meditation I discovered during an earlier battle with insomnia.

The Siesta Also Helps
My early morning meditations are new for me. But Randall's article in the Times also mentions recent studies that show enhanced cognitive performance after any deep sleep, even a nap. Now that's something I've known for a long time.

In law school, I discovered the only way I could get through a 2pm class in real estate law (boring!!) was to take a nap, even if it meant sleeping on a couch in the "men's lounge" (shows how long ago I was in law school) with the TV blaring and everybody talking. I continued sneaking afternoon dozes at my work desk until I finally got a private office. From then on, co-workers knew my office door would close for at least 30 minutes every afternoon. It helped that Bill Beltz, our company president, did me one better: he closed his door from noon until 2pm just about every day.

(A year or two after I retired, Bill called to tell me the head of our subsidiary in suburban Maryland had been fired, and he wondered if I'd be willing to fill the spot until they found a replacement. Bill understood completely when my only question before accepting the offer was: "Does his office have a couch?" )

Randall cites NASA-financed research that found enhanced cognitive performance among study participants if they napped for as little as 24 minutes. Several other studies showed similar results.

As a result, Randall describes "increased workplace tolerance for napping and other alternate daily schedules." Employees at Google can nap at work because the company believes doing so enhances productivity.

Just one more example of my good fortune in spending 40 years at an employee-owned company that tolerated many oddities, including a gay recovering alcoholic vice president of human resources whose many addictions included afternoon naps.

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