People once woke up halfway through the night to think, write or make love. What have we lost by sleeping straight through?
By Karen Emslie.
I have often wondered why it is I have the natural tendency to write fiction in the middle of the night, why I often fall asleep on the settee, wake up for a couple of hours then go to bed.. or be awoken with creative ideas…it seems I am falling into the natural pattern we all once experienced hundreds of years ago before electric lighting…The first sleep and the second sleep. A fascinating article!
Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night.
It is 4.18am. In the fireplace, where logs burned, there are now orange lumps that will soon be ash. Orion the Hunter is above the hill. Taurus, a sparkling V, is directly overhead, pointing to the Seven Sisters. Sirius, one of Orion’s heel dogs, is pumping red-blue-violet, like a galactic disco ball. As the night moves on, the old dog will set into the hill.
It is 4.18am and I am awake. Such early waking is often viewed as a disorder, a glitch in the body’s natural rhythm – a sign of depression or anxiety. It is true that when I wake at 4am I have a whirring mind. And, even though I am a happy person, if I lie in the dark my thoughts veer towards worry. I have found it better to get up than to lie in bed teetering on the edge of nocturnal lunacy.
If I write in these small hours, black thoughts become clear and colourful. They form themselves into words and sentences, hook one to the next – like elephants walking trunk to tail. My brain works differently at this time of night; I can only write, I cannot edit. I can only add, I cannot take away. I need my day-brain for finesse. I will work for several hours and then go back to bed.
The Romans, Greeks and Incas woke up without iPhone alarms or digital radio clocks. Nature was their timekeeper: the rise of the sun, the dawn chorus, the needs of the field or livestock. Sundials and hourglasses recorded the passage of time until the 14th century when the first mechanical clocks were erected on churches and monasteries. By the 1800s, mechanical timepieces were widely worn on neck chains, wrists or lapels; appointments could be made and meal- or bed-times set.
Societies built around industrialisation and clock-time brought with them urgency and the concept of being ‘on time’ or having ‘wasted time’. Clock-time became increasingly out of synch with natural time, yet light and dark still dictated our working day and social structures.
Then, in the late 19th century, everything changed.
The lights got turned on.
The inventor of the lightbulb was actually Joseph Swan, of Northumberland, England, not Thomas Edison- Edison worked on Swan’s design and developed the filament.
Some of us are morning people, others night people – early birds or night owls. Currey says that creative people who work in the night are ‘drawing on an optimal state of mind for their work’, governed by personal natural rhythms, rather than choice.
The novelist Nicholson Baker was the only person Currey encountered who had consciously decided to practise segmented sleeping. Baker is very aware of his own writing habits and routines, and likes to experiment with new writing rituals for each new book, Currey told me, so it seems appropriate that he would carve out extra productive hours by creating two mornings in one day.
Indeed, when Baker was writing what would become A Box of Matches (2003), a novel about a writer who gets up around 4am, lights a fire and writes while his family sleeps, Baker himself practised this ritual, then went back to bed for a second sleep.
‘I found that starting and nurturing this tiny early flame helped me to concentrate,’ Baker told The Paris Review. ‘There’s something simple and pleasantly meditative about building a fire at four in the morning. I started writing disconnected passages, and the writing came easily.’
It is this dreamy flow that seems to characterise creative work undertaken in the middle of the night. Between sleeps, there is the stillness, the lack of distraction and perhaps a stronger connection to our dreams.
Night also triggers hormonal changes in our brains that suit creativity. Wehr has noted that, during night-waking, the pituitary gland excretes high levels of prolactin. This is the hormone associated with sensations of peace and with the dreamlike hallucinations we sometimes experience as we fall asleep, or upon waking. It alters our state of mind.
Prolactin levels are known to increase during sleep, but Wehr found that (along with melatonin and cortisol) it continues to be produced during periods of ‘quiet wakefulness’ between sleeps, triggered by the natural cycles of light and dark, not tied to sleep per se. Blissfully zonked out by prolactin, our night brains allow ideas to emerge and intertwine as they might in a dream.
Wehr suggests that not only have modern routines altered our sleeping patterns, they have also robbed us of this ancient connection between our dreams and waking life, and ‘might provide a physiological explanation for the observation that modern humans seem to have lost touch with the wellspring of myths and fantasies’.
For the full article:
Somewhat ironically, a creative burst is now often described as the lightbulb moment- yet for most of human history bursts of creativity flowed by the light of the humble candle…