Deep Sleep

Michael Metzger

What constitutes sleeping soundly? The pilots for Asiana Airlines flight 214 were reportedly well rested. But investigators will review their sleep history, as recent findings from sleep research seem to challenge notions about what makes for reinvigorating rest. Interestingly, this research resonates with scripture’s take on sleep.

On July 6, Asiana Airlines flight 214 came in too low and slow during its landing at San Francisco airport. National Transportation Safety Board investigators are looking at the pilots’ 72-hour history – their work and rest history – to try to understand if they were fatigued or working in conditions that were less than best. It’s likely many Americans will find this part of the investigation to be of particular interest.

According to a 2011 poll, more than half of Americans between the ages of 13 and 64 experience a sleep problem almost every night, and nearly two-thirds complain that they are not getting enough rest during the week. Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, author of The Slumbering Masses, says industrialization and the industrial workday are the problems. They jammed people into sleeping between eleven at night and seven in the morning. This isn’t what we’re designed to do. David K. Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, agrees. He believes the imposition of the eight-hour sleep slot created a narrow conception of sleep. Randall says in fact neither our bodies nor our brains are built for the roughly one-third of our lives that we spend in bed.

The sleep slot is a 20th century development that regimented life in three eight-hour chunks. Work for one-third of the day, sleep for a third, and jam everything else into the other third. It’s a product of the industrialized West. Most of the world’s population sleeps in different ways. Millions of Chinese workers for example put their heads on their desks for a nap after lunch. Daytime napping is common from India to Spain.

In the early 1990s the first signs began to appear that “a straight eight-hour sleep had outlived its usefulness,” writes Randall.1 For instance, a history professor at Virginia Tech, A. Roger Ekirch, investigated the history of the night and began to notice strange references to sleep. A character in the Canterbury Tales decides to go back to bed 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. And one 16th century French physician concluded that laborers were able to conceive more children because they waited until after their “first sleep” to make love.

At the same time, Thomas A. Wehr, a psychiatrist working at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was conducting an experiment in which subjects were deprived of artificial light. Without the illumination and distraction from light bulbs, televisions or computers, Dr. Wehr noticed how, after a while, subjects began to wake up a little after midnight. They’d lie awake for a couple of hours and then drift back to sleep again, in the same pattern of segmented sleep that Professor Ekirch discovered.

Segmented sleep apparently helps us sort out what new information to keep and what to toss. Robert Stickgold of Harvard University and Matthew Walker of the University of California, Berkeley say the process of sleep acts as a form of triage – first choosing what to retain, and then discarding information that’s best forgotten.2 This winnowing seems to sharpen our awake hours. The process requires REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when the right hemisphere is unusually active.3 This supports the idea that the right hemisphere is best suited to sort out the important from the unimportant.

A few organizations are taking this research seriously. Employees at Google are offered the chance to nap at work. Google believes it may increase productivity. Researchers have observed that long-haul pilots who sleep during flights perform better when maneuvering aircraft through the critical stages of descent and landing. This is why NTSB investigators are looking at the Asiana pilots’ sleep history. And a school district in Minnesota is taking this research seriously. Till Roenneberg, author of Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired, says each of us has an internal clock. Some are inclined to go to bed early and wake up at dawn. They’re “larks.” Others are “owls,” staying up late and sleeping late. Teen-agers tend to be owls, so a school district in Minnesota switched to a later schedule. They found that the average S.A.T. scores for the top ten per cent of the class rose by more than two hundred points.4

This research seems to resonate with scripture. The Bible tells us “God doesn’t slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:3-5). But we do. Our bodies, as well as our brains and our minds, require daily renewal. This requires sound sleep. Nothing in scripture indicates this takes place between eleven at night and seven in the morning. In fact, the first instance of sound sleep, found in Genesis 2:21, makes no mention of day or night. The occasion was Adam not knowing he lacked a helper. So God caused “a deep sleep” to fall upon him and fashioned Eve. When Adam awoke, he delighted in the wisdom of God’s ways. This is why scripture cautions against rising early and retiring late (getting too little sleep), reminding us that God “gives to his beloved even in their sleep” (Ps. 127:2).

Sleep-related issues serve as a reminder of how problems are often the result of cultural conditions. This is why serious Christians take the cultural mandate seriously. Nothing in scripture suggests that the industrial world’s imposition of the eight-hour sleep slot is good for us. But most workers cannot simply step outside of the system and remain employed. They can however step outside of the industrial world’s assumptions about sleep. This is where recent research into what constitutes deep sleep is making a difference in schools and at Google. It might also help investigators figure out what went wrong with the Asiana Airline flight.

1 David K. Randall, “Rethinking Sleep,” The New York Times, September 22, 2012.
2 “Remember, remember: New understanding is emerging of memory and forgetfulness,” The Economist, February 2, 2013.
3 Iain, McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), loc. 5031.
4 Elizabeth Kobert, “Up All Night,” The New Yorker, March 11, 2013.


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  1. It seems like a bit of a stretch to say the research resonates with Scripture. The Bible is pretty ambiguous regarding the specifics of sleep. Sleep just happens. So many factors effect the length and quality of it – diet (processed GMO food, corn syrups, etc.), caffeine (which the Bible does not specifically mention, and Churches serve regularly), artificial light (tv, computers, etc.), children (newborns need mom and dad all hours) and environment.

    “Rest” on the other hand, is mentioned countless times in the Bible. God does not sleep, but He did create us in His image (Gen 1:26) and He did rest (Gen 8:4). I rarely sleep more than 5 hours per night, but when I balance my work life with rest, my head is clear, I am at peace and I find myself at the peak of creativity. Take Edwin Finkbeiner for example. He is a full-blown insomniac. Although he never sleeps, Edwin claims he must “rest” regularly. He paints masterpieces on the heads of sewing pins. His paintings have sold for thousands. As a child, I saw his work at a gallery when we lived in New York. You had to look through a magnifying glass to see the intricate details in his work. Rest makes all the difference.

    From the time my first child was born, I did not rest for a period of 6 years. This is not an exaggeration. I never worked less than 50 hours per week (sometimes 70-80), I did not take vacations, and I spent any free time I had remodeling our house. I slept, but I did not honor the Sabbath. Sundays were the worst. I spent the mornings fighting with my wife because we didn’t see each other all week, got the kids together in a whirlwind, rushed off to Church and spent the rest of the day miserable thinking about the 6 day workweek ahead of me. I slept, but did not rest.

    Our culture is demanding more from us. In the workplace, we are expected to do “much more with much less.” This is the part of our culture that is broken regarding sleep. If one cannot rest, one cannot sleep. Anxiety is another cause of sleeplessness in industrialized nations. This is what we must bring order to, IMHO.

  2. Fair assessment, Mike. My intention was not to equate the two. I just feel that talking about sleep is putting the cart before the horse. Address the issues of rest, and the sleep will follow. Nonetheless, an interesting article.

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