Do you frequently wake up in the middle of the night at a particular time? Do you sometimes have trouble getting back to sleep for an hour or more when this happens?
I do. And I hate it.
In an online article, Kel Campbell takes an optimistic view of these episodes. He claims that they involve a process that worked for our biological ancestors in the pre-Industrial Ages.
"Historian Roger Ekirch published a book in 2011 that listed approximately 500 written accounts from centuries past in which people referred to “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Diaries, medical journals, prayer books — they were filled with people discussing a sleep pattern that looked very different from what we know today.
People would sleep for the first part of the night, wake up in the early morning for a couple of hours, and then fall back asleep until it was time to start the day in earnest."
Campbell then describes some of the biological phenomena going on during these episodes. As one might imagine, our systems are in different states compared to times of normal wakefulness:
"When we fall asleep, we enjoy that fast actin’ prolactin, a hormonal secretion that sends you into dreamy, sleepy, peaceful and even hallucinatory state. It’s also released when we wake up and when we remain in a restful waking state — as our ancestors used to do between first and second sleep."
Does this "fast actin' prolactin" confer any benefits for us when we are awake in the middle of the night? Is there any reason to believe that we can use these episodes to our advantage? Campbell believes so:
"Your hormones enable you to take the creativity of dreams and combine them with the consciousness of a waking brain. Conversely, your brain can use its dream-like state to convince you that the spot on your back is undoubtedly melanoma. It’s like tripping on drugs [...]When you awake in the wee hours and are in a good place to lean into it, you can flex your imaginative muscles like perhaps no other time during the day."
As I said above, I am dreadfully familiar with these episodes and skeptical of Campbell's optimistic view of them. The causal connection from sleep hormones to creativity on which his argument depends sounds speculative and runs counter to my own experiences.
Having some flexibility in work time, I have occasionally taken segmented sleep by the horns. I have tried both practicing music and writing during these episodes.
In neither case did I experience any kind of breakthrough or even feel particularly satisfied by the activity. Instead, I felt like I was in a diminished state and merely trying to bide my time until I either got sleepy again or felt ready to move into normal waking life.
To me, there is absolutely no comparison to states in which I am fully rested, alert, and in a flow state.In fact, Campbell's claim that it is "like tripping on drugs" seems unintentionally apt. As when under the influence of substances like alcohol and cold medicine, the flow of one's thoughts can seem coherent at the time.
Later, when the products of one's activities seen under the glare of full consciousness, one realizes that they are of limited value and narrowly focused.
I'll take eight or more hours of unbroken sleep over segmented sleep any night of the week.