Americans sleep about two hours less a night than a century ago. Many assume less sleep means more productivity. Science and scripture would question that.
“The Science of Sleep” is the cover story in the August issue of National Geographic. “The average American today sleeps less than seven hours a night,” researchers note, “about two hours less than a century ago.” Of course, a century ago, a lot of work was arduous. Today, our reduced sleep stems more from artificial light and time spent in front of computers and smartphones. They “shallow” our sleep cycles.
Researchers see this in brain imaging. At night, the brain cycles four or five times through several stages of sleep. In Stages 1-2, it turns inward, away from the chaos of waking life, curating which memories to keep and which to toss.
But the brain doesn’t always choose wisely. That requires Stages 3-4, a deep, coma-like sleep restoring body and brain. There we experience REM—Rapid Eye Movement. In this wild state of psychosis, we’re surfing on clouds, slaying dragons, crazy stuff. But it’s not crazy. Our minds are opened to consolidate memories into meaningful patterns. Too much time under LED lights, artificial light, or in computers and smartphones, tends to “shallow” sleep to Stages 1-2, keeping us from going deep into Stages 3-4. Not good.
The ancient Greeks believed the gods consolidated memories in dreams, what we today call Stages 3-4. Freud felt it was our unconscious that spoke to us in dreams. Most sleep experts aren’t interested in the source. They simply note the brain, fully rested, awakens to stitch together a whole cloth out of haphazard scraps.
Christians should know the source. Made in God’s image, we seek meaning. But we’re not like God in that we sleep and he doesn’t (Ps.121:4). What’s going on here? God could have made the human body to not require rest. What if consolidating our memories into meaningful patterns requires more than what human beings are capable of? What if God, in his love, created the physical body to go to sleep so that, as we rest, “he gives to his beloved, even in their sleep” (Ps.127:2)?
I’m discovering this as I get older. The last 10 years I’ve required less sleep. But waking up at 2:30 in the morning seems extreme. So I pray through Psalm 23, where the progression of make, lead, guide is helping me return to deep sleep.
In Psalm 23, God makes David lie down in green pastures. This is biology 101. You will eventually go to sleep. Resistance is futile. But rather than resist, let God make you fall asleep. It’s a green pasture, luxuriant. When God leads, David finds himself “beside quiet waters,” restoring his soul. He awakes to find God guiding him in paths of righteousness. David is trustworthy. Make, lead, guide yields people who see deep patterns in everyday life. But it all begins with God’s rest—a good night’s rest.
And what do we begin to perceive when we get a good night’s rest?
First, we’ll recognize why a smartphone-addicted, sleep-abbreviated life does not promote human flourishing. Without sufficient REM our neural pathways “shallow.” We fail to see deeper patterns. We see this in college students. Mark Bauerlein of Emory University says they increasingly demonstrate an inability to consolidate the onslaught of information so easily accessed by web-based technologies.
Second, we’ll perceive why the gospel is told in four “chapters” (creation-fall-redemption-restoration). On average, we can only consciously process four bits of information at any given moment. Consolidate the “gospel four” and discover deeper meaning in the daily mayhem. Otherwise, we make naïve or unwise decisions.
Third, in getting a good night’s rest, we taste eternity. Jesus said his followers will never die (Jn.11:26). That’s why death is often described as sleep (“David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David” [I Kings 4:10]). When Christians die, they “fall asleep in Christ” (I Cor.15:18). We’re not conscious of the moment we fall sleep. I like how Dallas Willard said it. “I think that, when I die, it might be some time until I know it.” He passed away in May of 2013. A good night’s rest is a taste of eternity
Researchers have found if you turn off your devices before dinnertime, you get a better night’s sleep. I’ve begun reading printed books at night. I sleep better. I’m seeing why human flourishing requires a judicious use of communication technologies. If you’re not persuaded, try getting a good night’s rest. See if you feel differently in the morning.
 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains ?(W.W. Norton & Co., 2010)
 Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Tarcher/Penguin, 2009), 143.
 Jonah Lehrer, “Attention, Shoppers: Go With Your Gut,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2011.