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The Requisite Quantity Of Sleep

( Originally Published 1914 )



No BELIEF is more deeply rooted than that the average individual requires seven, eight or more hours of sleep. Like most firmly established popular conceptions, it is entirely unjustified. History abounds with examples of men whose existence was contemporaneous with some epochal transformation and who contributed immeasurably to the pleasures of life, who were able to do their work on half that amount of sleep. That it is possible to do intellectual work of the first order and to maintain a degree of vitality enabling its possessor to live out the scriptural allotment is evidenced by Herbert Spencer. "Appearances gave the impression that I was in fair health," he tells us in his autobiography. "Appetite and digestion were both good, and my bodily strength, seemingly not less than it had been, as tested by walking, was equal to that of most men who lead town lives. This continued to be my state for many years. Both then and afterwards, my sleeping remained quite abnormal. A night of sound sleep was and has ever continued to be unknown to me : my best nights being such as would commonly be called bad ones save when leading a rural life with working and out door sports to occupy attention. It probably averaged between four and five hours of unconsciousness, but it was never continuous. The four or five hours were made up of bits ; and if one of the bits was two hours long, it was something unusual. Ordinarily my nights had from a dozen to a score of wakings. Moreover, at that time and for five and twenty years after the sensation of drowsiness was never experienced."

This paragraph from the life's record of one of our greatest thinkers should reassure many an insomniac.

Rest Without Sleep. The object of sleep is refreshment and this may be obtained in a measure from rest alone. If the insomniac can adopt the attitude that he will take as much refreshment as he can from rest alone and if he will put himself in the attitude of mind favourable to receive this frequently, sleep will steal upon him while he is resting. If he can convince himself that he is neither threatened with insanity nor a physical breakdown from a few nights of disturbed sleep and that he can get sufficient refreshment of mind and body from a few hours sleep plus a great deal of rest, he will have advanced a considerable way on the road to recovery. Too many sufferers from insomnia delude themselves into the belief that the number of hours of sleep that is good for them is the greatest number they can get. While the stress of sleeplessness is upon them, their appetite for it is similar to that for water in those parched with thirst. While in this state, they are sure that they could drink a bucket of water if it were at hand but when that amount and more is tendered them, their thirst is slaked with a few ounces.

Illustrious Insomniacs.I have been able to assist many sufferers from sleeplessness by citing the example of such great insomniacs as Charles Darwin. "His nights," his son tells us, " were generally bad and he often lay awake or sat up in bed for hours suffering much discomfort. He was troubled at night by the activity of his thoughts and would become exhausted by his mind working at some problem which he would willingly have dismissed. At night anything which had vexed or troubled him in the day would haunt him." Yet the testimony of this same son is that his children saw him despite this and his habitual suffering "full of pleasure in what pleased them," and the world owes him the greatest contribution ever made to the scientific conception of the origin of man. It should help insomniacs to take patience with their lot to read how this great man ordered his daily life that he might secure the fullest benefit from the few hours sleep that were vouchsafed him.

Napoleon, Frederick the Great, Charles XII, the Duke of Wellington, to mention but a few, were among the great men who considered sleep a luxury rather than a necessity and the old English saying :

Nature requires five,
Custom gives seven,
Laziness takes nine,
And wickedness eleven,"

has more than a little truth in it.

Virgil and Horace, Franklin and Priestley, Parkhurst and Buff on, achieved their best work on a minimum of sleep. Sir Thomas Moore rose regularly every morning at four o'clock and so convinced was he of the beneficial effects of early rising that in his Utopia, he represented its inhabitants as attending lectures before sunrise. John Hunter, one of the world's greatest anatomists and surgeons, was able to retire to his dissections, his books and his writings, after a long and busy day in the active practice and teaching of surgery and after three or four hours sleep, arise fresh and vigorous for another day as full of work.

More than half a century ago a learned Scotchman, MacManish by name, wrote: "The same forces which regulate our desire for food also govern sleep. As we indulge in sleep in moderation or excess, it becomes a blessing or a curse; in the one case recruiting the energies of nature, and diffusing vigour alike over the mind and frame, in the other debasing the character of man, stupefying his intellect, enfeebling his body and rendering him useless alike to others and to himself. The glutton, the drunkard, and the sloven, bear the strictest affinity to each other, both in the violation of nature's laws, and in the consequence hence entailed upon themselves. What in moderation is harmless or beneficial, in excess is a curse, and sleep, carried to the latter extreme, may be pronounced an act of intemperance almost as much as excessive drinking or eating."

Let the insomniac then take heart. A life of personal satisfaction and general usefulness is not inseparable from eight hours sleep nightly. If he can spend four or five hours each night in sleep, let him consider that much as food and every hour added as pleasant but unessential dessert.

Let him fill himself with the thought that rest may revitalise him quite as effectively as sleep, and, instead of tossing and turning and working himself into a temper, let him lie at ease in bed and relax his contracted muscles and nerves. He will not be injured by merely not sleeping. It is the unrest of his body and mind while he is not sleeping that will work him harm. Let him control his mind and body and maintain them passive and placid and insomnia will lose its horror for him.



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