In an earlier post, I mentioned how my family (it’s not something you can do without your whole household participating) went without artificial light (including all electric lights, TV, and computers) after sundown, for all of June in 2009. June, being the month of the longest days, was the easiest month for such an experiment.
Soon after writing that post, we decided to try the experiment again, but this time for the month of February — a month with much shorter days and longer nights. I was traveling during the last week of February, so it was effectively only a twenty day experiment. Still — both the effects and the experience itself were dramatic. In a nutshell: more sleep, better sleep, improved mood, and an entirely different rhythm to both waking and sleeping life. There were some downsides too, which I’ll also discuss.
The first time we tried the experiment, in June 2009, we were primarily interested in catching up on sleep. Our daughter was born in March of 2008 — after more than a year a full night’s sleep was still elusive. As someone who had always been a night-owl at home, but never had any trouble going to sleep by 8:30 when camping, I already suspected that artificial light (as opposed to firelight, starlight, or moonlight) was what was keeping me from going to bed earlier. Reading this article by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times confirmed that suspicion.
An even earlier, unrelated 30-day experiment (I’ve done over a dozen at this point), during which I resolved and attempted to go to bed earlier, had failed miserably. On average I’d gotten to bed 45 minutes earlier; say quarter-after-eleven instead of midnight. I just found it impossible to go to bed when I wasn’t sleepy (which I distinguish from tired — just because your mind and body need sleep doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll feel sleepy). Just trying — willing myself — to go to bed earlier didn’t work very well — it certainly didn’t result in the kind of radical sleep improvement I was looking for.
On the other hand, the June experiment with no artificial light was a huge success. Kia and I immediately started going to bed between 9 and 10 instead of around midnight. We quickly caught up on sleep, sleeping ten or eleven hours a night at first, then normalizing around eight hours. One thing we both noticed was a huge boost in mood — moments of unexplained, unreasonable joy would strike us at random times during the day. I’m not talking about the calm sea of serenity — I’m talking about bursts of goofy delight — the kind that’s really obnoxious to the moody people around you.
So … we wanted to try it again.
Compared to June, February was a whole different ball game. Some days in June the sky was light until 9:30pm — in February we ended up lighting the candles as early as 5pm. I was concerned about not being able to get any work done, so we set 7:30pm as a cutoff for computers getting turned off. Here’s a list of the rules we decided to live by:
- no artificial light, including overhead lights, lamps, and the refrigerator light
- candles allowed
- computers allowed until 7:30pm
- TV not allowed after sundown (except TV on computers until 7:30)
One thing I experienced during the experiment was anger and frustration at not being able to f*cking see anything. Stepping on toys on the floor, bumping into table corners, searching for matches by moonlight — none of it fun. Cooking by candlelight can also be difficult. After a day or two I gained some awareness around what was happening emotionally. I did choose to do this, after all. The key to dealing with the anger was to conduct my actions more carefully, and with more foresight, during the long evenings. Light the candles before it gets totally dark. Make sure to light a couple candles in the bathroom. Be vigilant about cleaning up toys (and getting our daughter to clean up her toys) before it gets dark.
Wax is pollution. Little wax drips, everywhere, are hard to avoid when you’re walking around (or stumbling over things) while holding a candle. Scraping hardened wax off of tables and floors is a drag. Kia was reading a book — it might have been a George Elliot novel, in which people who stay up late are called wax-drippers. This seems to imply that, at least in pre-Industrial England, most people didn’t even bother lighting candles; they just went to bed when it got dark.
The pollution angle; it made me think about how entire classes of pollution can disappear, practically overnight. In the horse-and-buggy age, major cities were covered in horse shit. It was a serious problem, with no end in sight. Once the car came along, the horse shit vanished. Wax drippings similarly disappeared as a major problem with the advent of the electric light. This book review in the New Yorker talks about the same idea in more detail.
If we’d had proper candle-holders with wide bases this problem could have been avoided, or at least attenuated.
Sometimes getting in a couple hours of work (in the broadest sense, including creative work and “fun” work) after the kid goes to bed can make a day feel more productive. Feeling productive, while not important for everyone, is important for my own mental well-being. I don’t really buy into the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic (nobody works harder than Japanese salarymen, and they’re pretty far removed from any Calvinist cultural heritage), but I do feel better at the end of the day if I’ve created wealth, whether it be in the form of billable hours, progress on a music or writing project, fixing up the house — anything with a tangible, observable result that has at least a chance of positively affecting my own (or someone else’s) future experience.
It’s hard to be productive by candlelight. I took to writing longhand in a notebook, which I’m still doing, but in the evenings I couldn’t work on music production (computer needed), clean the house (more light needed), work on programming projects (computer needed), work on artwork, contracts, or email correspondence for Loöq Records (once again, computer needed), or most anything else that results in feeling like I got something done.
This is more of a wash than a negative. I didn’t watch any TV during the experiment — there just wasn’t any time. I like TV — at least good TV — and I missed it somewhat. It wasn’t that it wasn’t allowed — I could have watched my favorite shows during the day if I’d really made it a priority.
Now that it’s March I’m all caught up on Lost. Thank you Hulu — the motives of the smoke monster are slowing becoming clear.
Going in, I wasn’t as sleep-deprived this time, but we immediately started going to bed earlier. Sometimes I would sleep straight through the night, 10 to 6 or so. Other times I would go to bed really early, like 8:30, and then get up around 2:30am. This was alarming at first, but then I remembered that this sleep pattern was quite common in pre-electric light days. When this happened I would end up reading or writing by candlelight for an hour or two, then going back to bed. This is apparently called bimodal sleep, as noted in the Verlyn Klinkenborg New York Times article where he describes an experiment conducted by sleep researcher Thomas Wehr (Wehr ‘s volunteers have subjected themselves to to 14 hours of darkness each night):
What Wehr found was remarkable. The first night the volunteers slept 11 hours, and in the first weeks of the experiment they repaid 17 hours of accumulated sleep debt — i.e., they slept 17 hours longer than they would have called normal for the same period. It took three weeks for a sleep pattern to stabilize, and when it did it lasted about eight and a quarter hours per night. But it was not consolidated sleep, and it was not just sleep. Over time, Wehr explained, “another state emerged, not sleep, not active wakefulness, but quiet rest with an endocrinology all its own.”
Each night the volunteers lay in a state of quiet rest for two hours before passing abruptly into sleep. They slept in an evening bout that lasted four hours. Then they awoke out of REM sleep into another two hours of quiet rest, followed by another four-hour bout of sleep and another two hours of quiet rest before rising at 8 A.M. This pattern of divided sleep, separated by rest, is called a bimodal distribution of sleep, and it is typical of the sleep of many mammals living in the wild, which is to say that it is atypical of humans living in modern Western society. Yet in a forthcoming article, to be published in a volume called “Progress in Brain Research,” Wehr concludes that “in long nights . . . human sleep resembles that of other mammals to a much greater extent than has been appreciated.” Bimodal sleep, punctuated by quiet rest, was a pattern to which modern Americans reverted almost as soon as they were given the chance.
“In healthy people,” Wehr remarked, “this bimodal pattern of sleep would be called a sleep disorder, although the resemblance to animal sleep confirms its naturalness. And as people get older they revert to this pattern of divided sleep. Perhaps it gets harder to override it.”
I asked Wehr whether any of his subjects had gone crazy lying in the dark during those long nights.
None had. “Anyone could do it,” he said.
In addition to getting enough sleep each night, the quality of my sleep was definitely better. We’re still co-sleeping with our daughter, now 2, and any restlessness tends to affect me most. On bad nights I sometimes prefer the couch to our overcrowded bed. However no couch for the month of February — when I was sleeping, I was out cold.
Our daughter also got on an earlier schedule. In January she’d gotten in a bad cycle of staying up until 9 — no fun for anyone. She would get overtired and overstimulated, and falling asleep was getting harder and harder. Immediately — by Day 1 of the experiment — she was fast asleep by 7. What a huge relief.
With no artificial light, there is definitely more time in bed, half-awake. Wehr refers to this state as quiet wakefulness.
Living year-round on midsummer time, with long days and short nights, “has obtained,” Wehr writes, “for so many generations that modern humans no longer realize that they are capable of experiencing a range of alternative modes that may once have occurred on a seasonal basis in prehistoric times but now lie dormant in their physiology.” While humans worry about how much further we can compact our actual sleep time, we’ve already jettisoned six nightly hours of quiet winter rest. In a most meaningful sense, those are transitional hours. Once in the night and once in the early morning, Wehr’s volunteers woke out of REM sleep, which is strongly associated with dreaming, into a period of quiet wakefulness quite distinct from daytime wakefulness. Perhaps as we’ve learned, over time, to sleep a less characteristically mammalian sleep, we’ve also learned to sleep a less human sleep.
Quiet wakefulness is great, especially when you’re not worried about not being asleep. In other words, if you’ve already slept seven or eight hours (because you went to bed at 9pm), then being awake, or half-awake, in the middle of the night isn’t accompanied by fears of being tired the next day. In this state, which sometimes persisted for more than an hour, I would let my mind roam … sometimes just watching my dreamlike thoughts, sometimes directing them a bit. What will a character in my novel do next? What color should I paint the garage? It’s a great time to ask your brain questions which require creative answers.
Alternative Activities & Entertainment
During the long, candlelit evenings, without computers or TV, we found other ways to occupy ourselves. We read by candlelight, we had friends over for after-dinner drinks and snacks, we played board-games, and, well, use your imagination. The evenings were long and enjoyable.
Adventure Fantasy, Imagining The Past
The experiment gave our evenings an adventurous flavor. We were roughing it (a little). I would sometimes imagine we were living in the woods, far from civilization. The experience made me consider how each generation lives differently, and that with new technologies we both gain and lose certain types of experiences. It’s valuable to step out of the current technological zeitgeist — it changes the way you think and perceive the world.
The convenience of being able to flip a switch and have instant illumination can’t be overstated. But the downsides of cheap light may be as serious as the downsides of cheap food. Artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythms, prevents the production of melatonin, increases the risk of certain cancers including breast cancer and prostate cancer, and can generally wreak havoc with our health. My guess is that artificial light is causally linked to obesity, depression, immune disorders, and cancer, not to mention daytime tiredness.
After the experiment I see artificial light as something like sugar. We’re drawn to it, but too much is bad for us. In fact, it seems to be bad for us in many of the same ways — sleep deprivation reduces insulin sensitivity in the same way excessive sugar intake does.
For me, gone are the nights of having every light in the house blazing. The refrigerator light is back on, the bathroom light goes on when I’m in there, but otherwise it’s candles and maybe a mood light here and there. Even with this limited artificial light, the glow from my laptop is keeping me up later. Last night I slept from 11:45 to 6:15 — not bad but nothing like the solid eight hours I was getting most nights in February (one night I even slept eleven hours — I was tired and there was nothing preventing me from catching up).
I can function with as little as five or six hours of sleep as night. But with that little sleep (especially for more than one night), I’m not at my best, or my happiest, or my most creative; I’m just grinding through life. Since the only thing we have in life is quality of our consciousness, and sleep deprivation so obviously and negatively affects the quality of our consciousness, it makes sense to prioritize sleep. Most people would agree, but almost nobody does dedicate enough time to sleep. Why? The ubiquity of artificial light. It’s like going to a cake store, buying every delicious-looking cake, coming home and arranging them on your dinner table, and then resolving not to eat any sugar.