I’ve not used an alarm clock in 40 years. My mind has a build-in alarm which is set for no later than 6:00, no matter how much I would like to sleep longer. Seven mornings out of ten, I wake up like a tree full of owls between 5:50 and 6:00, no matter how tired I am or how late I'd gotten to bed the night before. There have been rare times that I can make it to between 6:25 and 6:30. Beyond that…no way.
I’m told we humans spend fully 1/3 of our entire lives asleep, yet far more is not known about sleep than what is known. Unless getting to sleep, or remaining asleep once we get there, is a problem, we tend, as with so many things in our personal existence, to simply accept it and very seldom if at all give it any thought. That's logical, I suppose, since so much of the detail work of our daily functioning is put on autopilot. We just trust our bodies to know what to do without our conscious instruction ("Lift left leg. Move it forward approximately two feet. Place left foot on ground and shift body's weight to it. Lift right leg. Move it forward…") And my particular mind is programed to "6:00. Time to wake up!” How it knows when it is 6:00 is another matter entirely.
Sleep is essential to our existence, and those cursed with chronic insomnia know the toll lack of sleep can take. There are a even a handful of scientifically documented cases of someone dying from lack of it—a specific condition the name of which I cannot recall. It is a singularly unpleasant death resulting from the body’s chemical and neurological balances being irreparably upset. Yet, again, we are generally blissfully unaware of exactly how this essential bodily function works and what all it does for us.
The amount of sleep each individual requires varies. A number of famous people, Thomas Alva Edison among them, are said to never have slept more than two hours at a time. The general consensus now seems to be that between 6 and 8 hours a night falls in the "average" range, although there is mounting scientific evidence that most of us do not get enough sleep, and that our daily lives and our productivity suffer from it.
A lot of people nap on a regular basis, even daily, and though if I take one nap every two months it is noteworthy, I often find naps counterproductive, waking up from them more tired than when I laid down. Plus, I tend to see a minute spent napping to be a minute taken away from things I really should be doing. But I stand in something akin to awe of friends for whom a nap (or two) is an integral part of their daily routine.
I have always been fascinated by the fact that, though we cross the boundary between sleep and being awake every night of our lives, we are never aware of actually crossing it. We're just awake one minute and asleep the next. We've all experienced a frightening and potentially deadly example of this while driving along a monotonous stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere, bored and/or tired. With absolutely no awareness of any change, we're lying in a hammock with a glass of lemonade—only to be jolted awake by the car's front tires going off the edge of the road and the adrenaline rush of pure terror which accompanies it.
We all know that sleep is vitally important in healing and physical regeneration; we all lie down and take a nap to get rid of a headache or to help get rid of a cold or the flu. People with life-threatening conditions are often put into induced comas to aid in healing.
On a nightly basis, sleep provides a form of housecleaning service we call dreams, sorting and rearranging and clearing up the mental clutter we've created and accumulated while we're awake. Sleep gives the brain the chance, in its own strange way, to deal with our unresolved problems and issues. To me, if sleep is a form of medicine, dreams are the spoonful of sugar Mary Poppins suggests we take it with.
Excuse me. I just sneezed. I think I should go lie down for a bit.
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