Okay, we’re going to ease into Monday, everyone’s least favorite day, with a simple command to make your life and your brain better: Get. Some. Fucking. Sleep.
Yes, I know you’re super busy. You have a paper due. Or a report. Or you were out last night and someone gave you a tequila/10-40 handcrafted cocktail laced with artisan catnip, and you were hanging from the rafters until four am. It happens.
And how are you today? Pretty shitty, I’m guessing. Unfocused. Can’t remember why you went into a room, even when it’s the goddamn bathroom and you have to pee. I get it.
Let’s stop doing that.
One of the bedrock principles of The-Intelligence-Upgrade-Dot-Com is that your brain and your body are one integrated organism. We often act as if our “brain” or “intelligence” or “spirit” are tethered to a balloon, drifting slightly above and to the left of our physical bodies. This is bullshit. Everything you are – your IQ, how you do your job, your thesis paper, your aversion to anchovies, your secret love of Japanese gameshows on youtube – is all locked in that 3-pound magic meat that sits on top of your spine, protected by your skull. This is why people who have catastrophic brain injuries often have personality changes when they wake up, and forget that they love vanilla ice cream and are married to Channing Tatum.
Stop fucking with your sleep. I know, you’ve heard about people who can get up at 4:45 AM and put in a full day. You know what those people are doing? Going to bed at 7:30. The senior citizen early-bird special is still available when those people are hitting the hay.
You’ve also heard of people doing segmented sleep, where they sleep for 20 minutes sixteen times a day so they can have a twenty hour day. You know what those people are doing? Being tired all the time. Falling asleep “off schedule”. Getting fat.
Just fucking sleep, please.
I’m not completely against the concept of polyphasic sleep. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that an afternoon nap – ideally in the 20- 30 minute range – can make you more alert for your afternoon and early evening, and you can get even better results with a “caffeine nap”, where you ingest a cup of coffee or tea before your catnap, so that the stimulant effect kicks in just as you wake up (and may keep you from sleeping past your “nap” time).
There’s also an growing body of evidence that humans are actually wired for two sleeping periods per night – an early, “first sleep” from sunset to midnight, a waking period of about an hour, and a “second sleep” that is deeper and lasts until dawn. Writers in the ancestral health movement posit that this would have evolved in early hunter-gatherer bands because it meant someone was always awake, and the lighter span of sleep would be earlier, when predators/marauders/alien invaders with monoliths would be more likely to be active. Historian A. Roger Ekirch has an entire chapter in his book “At Day’s Close” that explores the concept of a second sleep and describes the nearly 1,000 references he has found in historical documents (letters, diaries, etc) through his research.
So some segmentation of your sleep is fine. You may find that you naturally seem to wake up at 2 am every night and stare at the ceiling, trying to get back to sleep. I refer you to your hunter-gatherer ancestors for that, and suggest that you try to relax into that pattern. Getting up for a few minutes is fine. Do some yoga, meditate, stare at the stars. What you don’t want to is:
- pick up your phone and burn your eyeballs with that damned blue light, which will destroy your melatonin reserves like Godzilla leveling Tokyo;
- get on your computer (same reason)
- do anything more vigorous than stumbling to the bathroom. Unless you are sleeping with a similarly-awake and willing partner, in which case a bit of the sexy-sexy goes a long way towards falling back asleep, and waking up in a good mood. (Wake up enough to use protection, please.)
Also, if you find yourself repeatedly waking in this fashion, go to bed an hour earlier to compensate. No, I don’t want to hear it. You can argue with some troll on twitter in the morning. They’ll still be there, and they’ll still be wrong, I assure you.
Want more reasons to get some fucking sleep? For years science thought that REM cycles, the deepest part of sleep where your brain processes the day’s events and you have that dream where you go to work with no pants on – were the only part of sleep that mattered. Science also once thought the emission theory of vision was correct, so we can agree that science gets shit really, really wrong sometimes, but just like we now know that it’s the light entering your eye that makes vision possible, very clever people in sleep labs are now finding that lighter, delta wave sleep is equally important to REM sleep. Specifically, your body does most of it’s healing of illness and injury during this phase of sleep, as the majority of your body’s human growth hormone is released in your first hour of sleep. Non-REM sleep is also when your brain locks in the day’s learning and encodes memories. Want to be hobbled by slow-healing injuries, forget the name of the new guy at work in front of the boss, and fail your quarterly exams? Stint on your sleep.
I’m not going to go into sleep hygiene here, and exploring the benefits of recapping your day just before you go to sleep will be another column, so today’s lesson is over. Just remember: the bedrock of your brain health is laid at night.