Op-Ed

Happy birthday to Henry David Thoreau, a great sleep scholar

On this 200th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth, we celebrate what he did while he was awake: resisting the long arm of the state when it came knocking on his door to collect taxes that funded an unjust war; chronicling the changing ecosystem of his beloved ponds and rivers; modeling a life of simplicity and creativity. Yet the way he slept for two years — alone, on his own schedule, in a little cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. — was also quietly heroic; and what he had to say about it can tell us as much about our patterns of sleeping and waking as any contemporary sleep expert.

As a worker in his family’s pencil factory in rapidly industrializing Concord, Thoreau found it difficult to attune his body to the demands of his employment. The strain of adjusting to a regular work schedule was compounded by late-night coughing fits, aggravated from inhalation of graphite dust. His insomnia persisted into his next job, serving as a tutor; it became so severe that he found it difficult to read and write. “I am a diseased bundle of nerves,” he wrote in his journal, “standing between time and eternity like a withered leaf.”

Among the other reasons he offered for setting out on his famous experiment in self-reliance in July 1845, Thoreau went to Walden to get a good night’s sleep. He sought respite from industrial modernity by calibrating his rhythms to those of nature, or what he famously called “marching to the beat of a different drummer.”

The problem was not just personal, however. “Walden,” the masterpiece that resulted from his two-year stay by the pond, is full of references to a society-wide damaged sleep cycle. “To be awake is to be alive,” he wrote, yet he had “never yet met a man who was quite awake.” The reasons for this general somnolence sound surprisingly contemporary: addiction to stimulating substances, sensational news stories and entertainments; the frantic pace of commerce and high-speed telegraphic communications; noise pollution; the pressure to organize work and travel on an exacting schedule; and fears of fatigue-related accidents.

A century and a half before the first smartphone, Thoreau even seemed to glimpse a future in which the hand reaches compulsively for an electronic device in the middle of the night: “Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap … but when he wakes, he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.” Thoreau spoke out against an emerging 24/7 economy addicted to speed, technology and communication for its own sake, in which restorative sleep was collateral damage.

Chronobiology, the branch of biology concerned with the timing systems of living organisms and their responses to environmental forces, explores many of the same phenomena that fascinated Thoreau.

Human bodies are regulated not just by one internal clock, but by many: different timing mechanisms control the switching on and off of genes, the process of digestion, the mixture of our hormonal cocktails, and our tendency to feel drowsy or refreshed. Each of these can be set and reset by different environmental cues, a process called “entrainment,” and in worst-case scenarios, not only does the body fall out of sync with the rhythms of day and night, but individual timing processes within the body fall out of sync with each other — a process known as “internal desynchronization.” As the chronobiologist Till Roenneberg explained in his 2012 book on the subject, “living against our biological clock” has both physical and psychological consequences. And he detailed how technological developments, from trains to planes, electric lighting to the Internet, have wreaked havoc on our internal timing systems.

Reading Thoreau can help us to understand some of the origins of this disruption and its consequences. Even as the industrial economy disturbed our internal rhythms, it spawned a new materialism and a sense of mastery over the natural world. Thoreau was disgusted by his richer neighbors who channeled their industrial wealth into ever-larger homes; in these fortresses, they walled themselves off nightly from the sounds of nature and timed their alarms to meet the needs of industry. Many families today spread even farther out, using up precious resources to heat and cool five- and six-bedroom McMansions. Our way of sleeping, in other words, has simultaneously desensitized us to our natural timing systems, and contributed to our abuse of the natural world.

Thoreau wrote that “health is a sound relation to nature,” and it follows that as natural systems are despoiled, our bodies will register the change. Climate change researchers have recently used Thoreau’s notebooks, with their painstaking records of ice breaking up and wildflowers blooming, as data for measuring the effects of climate change since the mid-19th century. Spring, it seems, is coming to Concord several weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s time. Rereading his work can help us to see that our high-tech, hyper-connected, consumerist world has also changed the seasons within.

Benjamin Reiss is a professor of English at Emory University. He is the author most recently of “Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World.”

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