Sleep? There’s an app for that, of course. A strict food regime and biobehavioral monitoring may improve our “sleep score” and cure the sleeplessness epidemic that’s causing all this handwringing. 

And where there’s a cultural obsession, there’s a marketer. What holds promise for a restful future? Try a personalized, temperature-controlled mattress crafted with soothing seaweed and coconut husks to guarantee a better night’s sleep. Because seaweed. And coconut husks.

Inadequate sleep, we are told, less than seven hours on a consistent basis, makes us stupider, fatter, unhappier, poorer, sicker, worse at sex, and more likely to get cancer, Alzheimer’s and to die in a car crash. Someone even bothered to calculate that irregular and insufficient sleep has an economic impact of over $411 billion each year in America alone.

In our productivity trance, sleep is a skill to be honed. 

Cap the body’s rest at seven hours a night, and after ten days the brain is as impaired as it would be if you missed a whole night of sleep, according to neuroscientist Matthew Walker. His pop-science marvel Why We Sleep is a prescription for would be sleep-enhancers. 

“I have a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity window,” Walker writes. “Sleep trumps everything.”

Or does it? 

History suggests that sleeping in one eight-hour chunk for proper rest is unnatural. 

Before our light-drunk modern lives, life’s rhythm followed the sun’s rising and setting. There was no resisting it. No one came home after midnight; you wanted to be settled in before dark.

The standard pattern for sleep in early modern Europe and North America was two shifts of segmented sleep. A first sleep, which began about two hours after dusk, followed by a waking period of one or two hours, and then a second sleep. 

The quiet wakefulness at night provided calm and stillness inaccessible during the day. Some would use this time of deep tranquility to perform their devotions. In every religion there’s a spiritual practice of waking in the middle of the night.

Ushitora Gongyo is a Buddhist liturgy service conducted at the Taiseki-ji Temple in Japan every night between 2:00 and 4:00 am. The high priest chants a prayer for the enlightenment of all living beings. Hindus believe that the last quarter of the night, 96 minutes before sunrise, is the best time for meditation, yoga, and prayer. This is known as Brahma Muhurta or “The Creator’s Hour.”

In Judaism, Tikkun Chatzot or the “Midnight Rectification” divides the first and second sleeps of the night. Prophet David would sleep half the night, then get up and pray for a third of the night, then sleep for a sixth of the night. He hung a harp over his head so that when the wind blew across it, its music would wake him for prayer.

The spiritually elect are described in the Quran as those whose “sides shun their beds” and who “slept only a small part of the night”—sometimes because of fear, sometimes because of hope, sometimes because of love, and at others because of longing. Their repose is in God’s remembrance.  

“Do not sleep much at night,” Prophet Muhammed warned, “for a large quantity of sleep at night will leave its owner a poor man on the Last Day.” Another time he said about a companion, “What an excellent man he is. If only he would pray at night!” 

Muslims believe that God descends to the lowest heaven in the last third of every night, saying: “Who is calling upon Me that I may answer him? Who is asking from Me that I may give him? Who is seeking My forgiveness that I may forgive him?” This sacred time is called tahajjud.

He has done well who spoke the verse: “You claim to be in love, yet you go to sleep! The lover never sleeps. The person who claims to love God yet goes to sleep once the night has set is a liar.”

The human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep was swept away with the invention of gas and incandescent lighting. Artificial light irrevocably altered our circadian rhythms, the sleep—wake cycle crucial to the proper cell functioning of not just humans, but of all life on earth. 

There are about one hundred trillion cells in our body, each performing one hundred thousand chemical interactions per second, with each of these interactions involving an exchange of light. Coherence requires incredible timing and coordination among our cells. Disrupt this timing and you get a cascading breakdown and systemic health issues. 

Blue light from the morning sun triggers a set of functions that tell us to wake up. But at night, as our body is preparing to sleep, the constant barrage of blue light (from cuddling our phone) prevents the release of melatonin, which drives our sleep schedule. Our body cannot properly fall asleep without it. 

With a broken circadian rhythm, we can’t get deep, healing sleep. Snoozing eight hours or longer we’ll still wake up unrefreshed. Low-quality sleep degrades our body’s cell signaling and genetics, which we pass down to our kids who are even less resilient to these man-made electromagnetic fields. An explosion in autoimmune disorders among the young seems very much linked.

By the late nineteenth century, the night turned from a time of repose to one of potentially endless activity. Spending hours lying in bed was considered a lazy indulgence. Bedtime was delayed and nighttime became fashionable, a hallmark of bourgeois life in the West. Proponents of the rising industrial culture further pushed the emphasis of work over worship and the soul’s rest.

“People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency,” historian Roger Ekirch writes in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. “Sleep came to be packaged into one standard time slot and removed from nature’s great rhythmic cycles of temperature and light.” 

Our bodies were synchronized with the Hour of God, but with industrialization people timed their alarms to meet the needs of industry, becoming servants of clock time, “a time newly homogeneous across season, region or profession.” 

Spiritual enrichment can be found when we learn from the past and pull the plug on our billion-watt culture. What would be more contrarian than waking up in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep?

A question may linger: how do we square segmented sleep and nightly worship with our need for rest and the physiological purpose of non-REM and REM sleep? 

Rumi tells us: “The spiritual path wrecks the body and afterwards restores it to health. It destroys the house to unearth the treasure, and with that treasure builds it better than before.”