“If they had not been overcome with drowsiness they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be a live. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”
—Henry David Thoreau, in Walden (1854)
Thoreau’s figures have an uncannily prophetic ring in today’s crazy (and sleepless) world. Maybe it is an exaggeration that only one in a million awake enough for effective intellectual activity, for after all, we all know a handful of awake and alert people. But it is not an exaggeration by much. How many people like Thoreau do you know? Probably not that many, if at all.
In the surrounding section, Thoreau blames sleep deprivation on clocks, schedules, and “factory bells.” O, how simple their lives were, you might say. For in today’s society, we must also contend with the TV, the Internet, and the iPhone. (And my econ professor.)
I made the argument over a year ago that several things can make us resist sleep. They rest in broad categories:
- Chemistry: Consuming caffeine or other sleep-altering substances
- Danger: Being threatened or in some state of physical danger
- Interaction: A two-way interaction with other people or with a computer
- Ambition: Wanting to achieve something and sacrificing sleep in order to do it
But only a few of these things can sleep-deprive us day after day, month after month. And these things as can be seen in the categories (besides Danger, which is short-term), nearly all come from conscious habit. Since habits are difficult to get rid of, this presents a big problem for sleep deprived people. Oh well. You can always just live with it.
(I’m super sleep-deprived right now, which may explain the incoherency of this post.)