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Thomas Edison's Impact on Sleep

The biological drive to wake and sleep based upon the rising and setting of the sun each day has been in place in humans since time began. The evolutionary message that runs our lives even in these modern times was influenced by our survival needs as people living in caves, and its influences on almost every aspect of our lives remains just as strong. Scientific experiments done in the last several years have indicated that the body’s response to light is not limited to what we experience through our eyes: even exposing a small patch of skin on the back of our knees can create changes in our circadian rhythm. Other experiments have shown that in addition to exposure to light, changing the body’s chemical composition by adjusting the amount of melatonin present in the blood stream can change our schedules, as  can exercise.  

Despite the increasing knowledge of things that can change our cycle, we are also learning that there are limitations in our abilities. The biological clock can’t be changed whenever we want it to. There are specific times of day when our brains are more open to receiving these messages of adjustment and accepting a reset, and there are specific ways in which it can or can’t be done. The body will insist on getting the sleep that it needs, and will resist those efforts that are done in ways that are completely unnatural.

That being said, perhaps the greatest single contributor to the existence of insomnia in our society came with the invention of the electric light. Prior to Thomas Edison’s discovery, human beings were completely tied to the rhythms of nature. Although man invented fire to provide a light against the darkness, fire is different from light. It creates warmth and safety and a way to cook our food, but it was still a light that had a limited effect, and we were still aware of the dominating darkness of night.

As oil and gas lamps were invented and brought more light into our households, they allowed people to stay up later and engage in more activities, including working or reading. Though they changed our habits they were not bright enough to replicate the power of the sun or to have an impact on our biology (or our biological clocks).  Additionally, leaving a gas or oil lamp on throughout the night was not only expensive, but also carried a risk of fire, and so most tasks were still reserved for the hours in which the sun shone.

But when Thomas Edison brought the electric light bulb to life in the late 1870s, everything changed. With the flip of a switch we were able to light an entire room or house inexpensively and easily. Not only were people able to stay up late for leisure activities but people were able to work around the clock, and the light provided by an electric light bulb was strong enough and bright enough to actually have an impact on our internal cycles. The time that people naturally went to sleep started shifting later into the night, which meant that people also tended to sleep later – they were no longer up with the rising of the sun. Instead, we started to rely upon alarm clocks.

Edison’s invention was perfectly timed to the Industrial Revolution with its invention of the factory production line and round-the-clock work. As something of a workaholic the idea of creating a method of shortening the sleep cycle was something that he was profoundly in favor of: he believed that the existing sleep cycle was representative of sloth, and that it was “unhealthy and inefficient” for people to sleep more than eight hours per night. He personally worked throughout the night with great frequency, driven by creative genius, and though he claimed that he didn’t need more than a few hours of sleep, he likely took long daytime naps in order to get past any sleep debt that his body acquired.

Though the electric light bulb and the many electric inventions that followed have improved our lives tremendously, they work in direct opposition to millions of years of evolution that created the system that our bodies operate under. The fact that we can light our worlds 24 hours per day and have electronic stimulation to keep us engaged at all hours of the day or night does nothing to eliminate the programming that has been at work since the dawn of time.

With electric light, round-the-clock televisions, computers and the ability to work around the clock, our productivity and connectivity have expanded tremendously, but so have the health and emotional problems that come with sleep deprivation. The problems of obesity that are becoming widespread throughout our society have been directly linked to lack of sleep, as have fertility issues and many other pervasive conditions. Testing done on people who have been sleep deprived versus those who have been systematically allowed to restore themselves and catch up on their sleep debt show marked improvements in cognitive ability, including measurements of IQ.

Our bodies are still operated by a biological clock that is located within our brain, operated by thousands of nerve cells located just above our eyes and responding most powerfully to light and darkness. That is not likely to change any time soon, and there is a rapidly growing body of evidence to indicate that it shouldn’t. When people who live in modern society return to more natural settings in which electricity and modern conveniences are not as prevalent, they also report sleeping longer, feeling healthier and more emotionally secure.  Perhaps if we paid less attention to our electronics and more time adhering to the natural world around us there would be far less insomnia and stress impacting our health.

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