Insomnia is epidemic in our culture. The reasons are obvious and diverse. Artificial light after sundown, too much synthetic stimulation (from our foods to our gadgets), not enough physical movement or authentic human connection in our day.

One thing to consider, though: the idea of zonking out and sleeping a straight 7- 8 hours does not really square with human history. Sleep experts and anthropologists who study traditional, agrarian cultures in the¬†present day¬†describe a phenomenon known as “second sleep.” This means that people who live by the old diurnal rhythm — retiring at sundown, returning to their fields or their work at dawn– often sleep for a few hours after dusk, then awaken for a couple of hours as part of the natural circadian rhythm. They may even socialize or do some quiet work around 2 am or so, then return to their beds for more rest. Evidence suggests that this was the case in rural America as recently as the last century, before artificial lighting changed our behavior patterns profoundly.

Another misconception about sleep is that our minds and bodies turn off. Not true. We crave sleep because it is a time of feverish activity on a cellular level. Every cell in our bodies undergoes intensive self-repair while we are sawing logs.

This is why new parents and other sleep-deprived people feel so funky. It’s because their bodies (and minds) are being deprived of much-needed routine nightly maintenance in the mysterious and healing realm of night.