Human Habits

Why Do We Sleep At Night?

It is the norm among people to sleep primarily at night, and, at least in wealthier societies, to eat three meals a day.

There’s nothing the matter with that. We’ve been doing it for millennia. But we rarely think about the subject and, when we do, generally shrug it off as comfortable and harmless.

But ignoring where such human habits came from risks missing where they’re headed. And, like much else in the world, Covid-19 might well partly upend what we’ve long taken for granted.

Nighttime sleep is a direct consequence of our rotating earth. In our earliest days as a species, when there was no sunlight and no significant alternative, there was little else to do once one’s portion of the earth turned away from the sun. People could not see to move around or even talk to other people, so having a ‘nap’ to wait for the sun again made good sense. The temporary darkness also afforded privacy, allowing people to do things in the dark they might prefer others not see – including satisfying the most basic human urge to reproduce. Even in a world full of walls, doors, blinds and other barriers to prying eyes, the habit has become ingrained, a given in most humans’ behavior the world over.

While sleep patterns emerged from primitive conditions, eating is another thing. Humans of course need food to get the energy and nutrients we require to do everything we need to do — including sleeping and reproducing!

Many animals eat just once a day. It seems probable, given the scarcity of resources available to our hunter/gatherer forebearers, that humans began their existence the same way. But we eventually grew into the gluttonous creatures we are today – enough so that we created a lexicon around the experience. Breakfast, as it says, is the breaking of the fast during sleep.  Lunch derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘nunchin’ meaning noon drink. Dinner comes from the old French word disner, which means to have a meal. Our “three-square” regimen likely emerged initially as a display of wealth – an indulgence available to those of means. As agriculture and economics alike improved, the privilege became widely available to previously impoverished masses eager to “eat like a king.” There is, however, no obvious reason why humans should eat more than once – and record levels of obesity suggest a host of reasons not to. Perhaps it is just another way for humans to pass their time in a pleasurable way?

Occasionally something comes along and jars us out of our old patterns of behavior. Today, that “something” is Covid-19. Much has been written and said (including by me) of the potentially grand changes the virus may usher in. It’s likely to affect us in smaller ways, as well. The role of restaurants –from favorite take-outs to five-course affairs—has been changed by the virus. The brisk lunch business many restaurants once enjoyed from office workers has suffered greatly from the surge in work-at-home arrangements. Except for socializing, it makes little sense to leave one’s home in the middle of the day – especially the work day – to get a bite to eat. 

We might soon see something similar with sleep habits. With home as the “primary operating environment” of millions of workers, studies show we’re spending more time at our desks (which may be our kitchen tables) than ever. Already, the workday has been extended by a couple of hours for such workers. The question is why is it still built around a 9-5 standard? Lighting is plentiful, we’re always connected, and much work would be better done without the interruptions common to “normal” working hours. Wouldn’t an afternoon nap leave you more productive for the latter part of your workday? What does it matter if that day ends at 7 instead of 6, or starts at 5 instead of 9? Why not have morning, afternoon and evening work “shifts” – say from 4-7 am, 10-2, and 5-7 – with a 90-minute nap between each?

If you are a traditionalist like me, the routines and rituals surrounding the now “old-fashioned” workday offer comfort and predictability – important commodities during such uncertainty. What are us lucky folks to do?

Is writing a blog enough? I’m going to take a nap and consider the question…

CYA later at midnight!

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