Why Do We Spend One-third of our Lives in Sleep?
by: John Bigelow, LL.D.
Why is it that the children of men are required by the inexorable laws of their existence to spend, on an average, eight out of every twenty-four hours, or one-third of their entire lives, in sleep?
Why is their consciousness periodically suspended, and so large a part of every day apparently wasted that might be devoted to the prosecution of the duties which the Author of their being has imposed upon them, or in such innocent indulgences as He has qualified them to enjoy?
Why is this apparent waste made one of the conditions of life, not only to those who are supposed to have been created in God’s image, but to the animal and vegetable kingdoms as well?
These are questions which pass through the minds of most thoughtful people at some time in their lives, and, to such as have grasped the great and pregnant truth, that in the divine economy there can be no waste, they are very puzzling.
“Why try to prolong life if so many hours are to be spent in sleep?” asked Kant. He could find no better solution of the question than early rising and decrease of the hours devoted to sleep–a theory which assumed that all time spent in sleep was wasted.
Most people are content with the theory that we get fatigued with the labors of the day, and need rest for refreshment simply because we are fatigued, as the soil needs fertilizing to maintain its productiveness.
Even science has found no better use for sleep than to repair the waste of tissue; to thus “knit up the ravell’d sleeve of care”; and still maintains that one hour out of three, eight hours out of every twenty-four, four months out of every year, and twenty-three years out of every thirty-nine are only a fair allowance for that purpose. Such, in substance, would be pretty uniformly the answer that would be made to these questions, and the theory that we rest, and for that purpose only, would as uniformly go unchallenged. Yet such an answer assumes many things as facts which are not facts; and any reasoning upon them, therefore, must be fallacious.
When we say we sleep that we may rest, the question naturally arises, What rests in sleep that does not rest equally in our waking hours? What faculty of the physical or the spiritual nature of man is in repose during sleep? What single function or energy of the body is then absolutely suspended? Certainly not our hearts, which do not enjoy a moment’s rest from the hour of our birth to our decease. It is always in the effort to send our blood laden with vital energy through every vein, artery, and tissue of our bodies. The lungs, too, are equally restless in their endeavor to provide themselves with fresh air to purify this blood and qualify it for its appointed use. The process of inspiration and expiration by the aid of an elaborate and complex system of muscular contraction and expansion goes on by night and by day with an unrelenting vigor. The same is true of our stomach, our glands, our kidneys, and of all the other mysterious operations of our digestive apparatus; even our nails and our hair are as tireless as our heart and our lungs. The skin acts more energetically during sleep than at any other time, as the quality of the atmosphere in the room where we have slept, if not specially ventilated meantime, will testify in the morning; and it is in consequence of the more active perspiration going on during these hours that is to be attributed our greater liability to chills during sleep than at other times. Both observation and experiment prove that food taken just before sleeping is digested and assimilated much better than if the man or the animal is forced to walk or run or take active exercise immediately after feeding.
A person in good health, while sleeping, will expel from his body, by perspiration and without resorting to any artificial means of promoting it, twice as much matter as in the same period of time while awake; and nothing is excreted through the skin that has not been thoroughly digested and deprived of every quality of use to the body it leaves.
The kidneys, too, not infrequently act more energetically during sleep than in a waking condition.
Young plants grow in the night-time, which is also their time for sleep. The same is true of young animals.
Science now recognizes the fact also that every impression made upon the mind of the sleeper produces a change in the volume of the brain. This proves that the various sensory nerves, as well as the spinal cord, are practically incapable of fatigue. The care that man and all animals take when desiring sleep—to shelter themselves from light and noise, to close the doors and drop the curtains, to exclude all disturbing impressions from the external world—teaches us that the whole nervous system—even that of our consciousness, which we are wont to speak of as suspended—reserves its power of action during sleep as completely as at any other time. Certain birds sleep standing on one leg. Water-birds while asleep have a habit of gently paddling with one foot, showing that a group of voluntary muscles are continually active. Soldiers frequently fall asleep on horseback, and even on foot, during a night march; nor is it very uncommon for persons to answer questions intelligibly without awaking or remembering the circumstance. Statistics have been collected showing that out of two hundred college students, forty-one percent of males and thirty-seven percent of females talk in their sleep. So in our dreams we receive impressions showing that not only the optic, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory nerves are active during sleep, but that the corresponding cerebral nerve-centres are active. Eyes are closed, not because the faculty of opening them or seeing with them is suspended, but simply because we do not will to open and see with them, and this is just what happens with all of us frequently in our waking hours, as when we close our eyes to exclude the light, to favor meditation, or in prayer, and always at night to favor sleep. There is no visual faculty suspended in the one case more than in the other. That our hearing is generally less acute during sleep than at other times is not the result of any suspension of the auditory functions, but, as in our waking hours frequently, from the lack of attention. Any unusual sound, such as would be likely to arrest our attention in our waking hours, is apt to awaken us from sleep. No one can have traveled much on our ocean steamers without remarking the prompt effect upon the sleeping passenger of any unusual noise, though it be far less considerable than the familiar noise of the machinery. Very few will sleep through even a pause in the operation of the machinery. So a disagreeable or untimely odor or smoke will often awaken a sleeper as soon as it would have been noticed by him if awake.
“Nature has no pause,” said Goethe, “and visits with a curse all inaction.”
People whose brains are most severely exercised are apt to find their most congenial recreations in games of some kind which require a concentrated activity of the mental powers, while no one of them finds it in mental inactivity, not even idiots.
The student when he wearies of one subject seeks his recreation in another. He drops his law or his theology or his astronomy and takes up, mayhap, poetry or music or history. I k new a clever architect who diverted his mind from professional strain by the study of geometry, and always traveled with a copy of Legendre in his satchel. He did no want rest; he wanted change. Milton went to h is organ for diversion. Dr. Franklin’s favorite recreation was chess, and Jeffereson’s his violin. Whist and other games of chance, so called, are popular recreations for professional men.
There is a very large number of both sexes, unfortunately, who do little of nothing from one week’s end to the other to fatigue mind or body, who yet fall asleep just as punctually and sleep quite as long as the average laboring man. This could not be the case if rest—cessation from voluntary labor—were the only or main purpose of sleep.
It is now pretty generally conceded, I believe, that all the constituents of a human being are either spiritual or material; that what of us is not spiritual is material, and what is not material is spiritual. Fatigue, of course, cannot be predicated of any spiritual quality. No one will pretend that virtue, veracity, patience, humility, brotherly love, are attributes or qualities of which fatigue can be predicated, any more than that twice two are or ever could have been or become more or less than four.
This, of course, is equally true of the opposite spiritual qualities, such as viciousness, lying, inhumanity, pride, selfishness, hate, etc. No man, after feeling benevolent for a few hours, needs to rest h is benevolence, and for that purpose become meanly selfish during his repose–a necessary condition either of its absence or its suspension. On the other hand, if anything about us requires repose for reparation or restoration, then it must be the “soul’s dark cottage” which the spirit inhabits–our material bodies. But matter has no faculty of initiating or of arresting motion. It is absolutely inert. If matter could be fatigued it could and would waste, shrink in bulk, and perish, if not allowed to rest and recuperate; but no one pretends that the aggregate of matter in the world is capable of being diminished or increased, to whatever process it may be subjected by man. If matter could experience fatigue it might be annihilated–a result which, scientifically speaking, is not supposable; and if any particle of matter could experience fatigue and the need of rest, all the matter in the universe must have the like experience. How upon such an assumption can we explain the tireless energy of the countless planets, which have been dancing to the music of the spheres around their respective sun from the dawn of creation, without relaxing their speed in the slightest degree or stopping a moment for repairs in all the myriads of years? If any particle or fraction of our bodies requires rest, the planets must need it incalculably more.
We shall search in vain for any law, attribute, or property of matter or of spirit which prescribes rest as an end or subjective necessity under any imaginable circumstances.1
When death comes and separates the soul from the body and this corruptible puts on incorruption, matter does not part with a single attribute or quality necessary to its perpetuity and integrity, any more than a house does when a tenant moves out of it; even then it does not rest, but, like the house, becomes as much as ever before the habitation of some other form of life.
Yet every night of our lives sleep descends upon us like an armed man; prostrates us with barbarous indifference on beds of down or straw, and closes up all our communications with the workaday world, as in death.
1“Throughout nature there is no example of absolute rest, all asserted rest being expressions of relations of bodies to other parts of space. Atomic motion attends all thermal variation; this variation is incessant and universal. Chemical and polar motion is unceasing; and the diurnal and the annual motion of the earth perpetually change the position of every atom of its mass. The interconnected movements of the solar system, and the motion of that system towards a distant constellation, together with the motion of binary stars and of nebulae, are evidences of continual transition, from which we reasonably infer a motion of the whole stellar world, the verification of which is prevented by the absence of appreciable parallax and by the limited period of our observation. The universe itself is relieved from a sullen sameness and is endowed with activity, whirling life, and beauty, simply by virtue of the never-ending motion of each and every atom."
...The balance of the chemist has also overturned the belief so long entertained of the destructibility of matter. Now the conception of it diminution, or expulsion from existence, is as impossible as that of its increase or appearance from nothing; and as the matrix of inherent energy, and representing by its never-ending motion a mechanical force, its augmentation, or annihilation, obliterates all idea of laws of force. It is, therefore, concluded that the quantity of matter and of inherent energy in the universe is always the same.”–One Law in Nature, by Captain H. M. Lazelle, United States Army.
About the Author
John Bigelow, LL.D.