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What happens if the lights go out for good?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A popular new television show this fall explores the idea of what it would be like if electricity failed to work. It wouldn't be pretty, according to the plot so far, with desperate citizens killing for food, militias (thanks to gun control) oppressing the citizenry and euthanasia standing in for advanced life support.

Despite those ugly prospects, pulling the plug could have the advantage of returning human beings to a more natural, two-segment form of sleep, according to at least two researchers who have written books on the subject.

That all flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which preaches that failing to achieve six or more hours of uninterrupted sleep can lead to all sorts of ills, such as doubling your chance of heart attacks, strokes, angina, higher blood pressure leading to artery damage, and even an increased chance of death before 65.

In response, millions of us seek help through medications, but those carry their own risks, such side effects as memory problems, daytime grogginess and even an increased increased risk of dementia.

The two authors, David Randall, in "Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep," and Matthew Wolf-Meyer in "The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life," suggest the eight-hour rule was forced on the population more in order to conform workers to the needs of an industrialized society and as a result of the invention of the light bulb than in response to the needs of the human body.

The researchers say it was more natural for peasants, exhausted from long days in the field, to go to bed with the sun, sleep for four or five hours, awake to do chores or other activities, then go back to sleep until sunrise.

Another expert points to a reference in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales who decided to go back to bed after her "first sleep." An English doctor contended that the time between the "first sleep" and "second sleep" was the best time for study and reflection. Others suggest the divided sleep pattern left those exhausted peasants with time and energy to reinforce the supply of labor for the family farm.

In northern Europe, as well, it was easier to stay warm by staying in bed nine or ten hours a day, some of it awake, over the long winter months.

Studies have found people deprived of electricity, including at least one African tribe, go to bed earlier, sleep for a few hours, wake for a couple or hours, then go back to sleep. Blood tests taken during the interim show high levels of prolactin, a hormone that reduces stress.

But what if we don't have 10 hours a day to spend in bed? Well, at least one company, Google, is allowing U.S. employees to take short naps at work because it believes it increases productivity. Indeed, some studies conclude a deep nap of only 30 minutes can help you think more imaginatively and productively. And, a NASA-funded study at the University of Pennsylvania cognitive performance improves after as little as 24 minutes of napping.

No, all of our electronic and electrical devices are unlikely to stop working at once, and most of us won't find ourselves spending 10 hours a day in bed this winter.

But there does seem to be adequate reason to give the eight-hours-a-day mantra a second look.


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