B y ALAN BRIEN AFTER all these thousands of years, it seems extra- ordinary that the vast majority of men in all cul- tures are still obediently falling asleep around mid- night and waking up re- luctantly a couple of hours after dawn. What is sleep but a neurotic reaction to nothingness, triggered off in early man by a fear of the dark? It seems to me to have a physiological justification only immediately after meals when the blood drains away from the extremities in order to assist the digestion. Sleeping is like cry- ing—a behaviour pattern which has largely lost its original justification. Tears wash the eyes but few weepers have eyeballs so dirty that the ducts must overflow down the cheeks. Sleep shuts off the interfering brain to allow the automatic mechanism of the body to do the dirty work, but few people are so tired that they need oblivion for eight hours out of every twenty-four. Yet every night a great tide of snores follows the sun around the globe. And almost every one of us, who will sleep long enough and soon enough in death, falls into a catalepsy which robs our brief existence of precious hours of consciousness.
Now that man in his industrial societies can rout the blackness at the flick of a switch, why should he not work all night, and then play and doze all day? Fewer and fewer of us need sun- light to earn our living. In offices and factories and shops, the daily-breaders slog on ignorant of whether it rains or shines outside. We are a semi- troglodyte civilisation which deliberately deprives itself of daylight. Even if there is some planners' reason why we should not work at night, I can- not see any reason for wasting those early morn- ing summer hours when the sun sometimes beams with a tropical fervour and the air has not yet been muddied with petrol fumes and chimney smoke. If the politicians really want to modernise Britain, they should break this stone-age habit to start the nation's day at six a.m. and end it at two p.m.
That much of our drowsiness is a defence
mechanism to avoid being awake to our inade- quacies cannot now be doubted. During the First World War it was discovered that many of the sprawled corpses on the barbed wire were in fact unharmed but asleep. And I notice that my own timetable of tiredness is arranged to protect me from doing things I dislike. I am ten times more exhausted before I write an article than after I have finished. The yawns decrease in frequency as I near the final sentence and I can only hope that my readers have noticed the same progres- sion. It is no coincidence that the signs of bore- dom and of sleepiness are almost indistinguish- able.
Sleep is a drug and one that is both addictive and progressive. Perhaps our obscure realisation of this makes a sleeping man seem both comical and somehow disgusting. The sight of another human being cushioned against reality brings out the worst in his fellows—and they begin clatter- ing dishes, vacuuming the stairs, playing records or talking noisily to themselves. To wake any- one is an act of aggression but often a justified one. For the truth is—sleep makes you tired.
Like all drugs, it has its uses. But there are few exertions which demand more than a thirty- minute siesta to recharge the batteries. All em- ployees should be permitted, indeed encouraged, to drop off for forty winks every two hours. I'm sure that time-and-motion study would easily establish that more profitable results were obtained from a staff which operated in bursts of high activity than through days of somnolent, bleared half-consciousness. The trouble with most bosses is that they are more concerned to see that their workers are there rather than all there.
Somnia, like insomnia, is a nervous ailment and may respond equally to psychiatric treat- ment. Insomnia is to sleep as constipation is to excretion—far more harm is caused by worrying about not doing it than by not doing it. If your body needs to close your eyes or open your bowels, nothing your mind can think will pre- vent the muscles following their ancient ritual, whether you are charging with a bayonet or travelling in a train without a corridor. How- ever rarely you go to bed or to the lavatory, that is often enough for you.
In this fall-out age, where violence is swallowed with every breath, we have already made suspect our two most innocent natural products, milk and rain. There is a school of thought which regards sleep as the last refuge of untainted humanity. But sleep is an alibi—literally a claim to be else- where at the time. More marriages have been ruined by over-indulgence in sleep than in sex, or by cruelty, poverty or adultery. The partner who goes dead in the chair after dinner or as the head hits the pillow is rejecting the mate as surely as if she locked him out of the house or he kicked her out of bed. Like drunkenness, it is a symptom, not a cause, of incompati- bility. I believe the reason that the Anglo-Saxon woman traditionally dotes on Latin lovers is not that they have superior endowments, but that Mediterranean men cat-nap in the afternoon in order to wolf-hunt at night.
It is time that the Ministry of Health mounted an anti-sleep campaign along with their anti- smoking one. And I say this as a veteran smoker and.sleeper who has been known to go on twenty- four-hour debauches of horizontal oblivion. Like alcohol, sleep is a short-term stimulant but a long-term depressant. To drop off for a few minutes at a dull lecture or a bad play is one of life's pleasures. But to be on the stuff every day of your life for hours at a time is a sickness. Let's all try to taper off today.