Night Life : A Plea to Scientists From Steve Allen, Who Could Use Less Sleep

With his 27th book in the stores, actor-writer Steve Allen is at work on a 28th, "How to Be Funny."

Inasmuch as the accidents of genetic nature have enabled me to be at least professionally proficient in a number of trades and disciplines, it will no doubt seem rather piggish of me to envy others. Envy isn't ordinarily one of my failings, but I confess to wishing that I were like Thomas Edison and Chou En Lai in one specific regard. They're said to have required very little sleep--only a couple of hours in each 24.

I find myself at almost the other extreme, that of out-and-out narcolepsy. My pattern, even now that I've passed 60--at which point it is said that we need less sleep--is to remain unconscious for 10 or 11 hours every night.

Of course, often I can't get as much sleep as I'd like. Many nights I get no more than the customary eight hours and, sad to say, there are a few in which I get only five or six. But after three or four days of being so shortchanged, nature takes over and knocks me out for at least 12 hours, which seems to balance the scales.

This pronounced need for sleep has nothing to do with laziness. I take no days off and have not gone on an actual, work-less vacation in my entire life. The eight-hour workday is insufficient, and even at play I pause every few minutes to dictate a letter, write a song or make a business telephone call. I'd love to have those extra hours of working wakefulness, could I but discover the secret that energized Edison and Chou.

To that end, I've diligently studied the results of sleep research for the past 30 years. Though I now know a good deal about the rhythms of the unconscious, I'm no closer to knowing why some people need a great deal of sleep and others need so little, since science itself has yet to resolve the question.

Unconsciousness, in fact, may be my natural state. My creative abilities work almost as well during the unconscious hours as they do when I'm awake. My most successful song, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," was the product of a dream.

And music isn't the only creative endeavor to owe its conception to sleep. Since my dreams are usually vivid and not infrequently boast a cast of thousands, it's not too surprising that I got the idea for a novel while asleep. When I woke up, it took 10 hours to dictate what I'd dreamed so easily, so quickly.

I leave it to the specialists to say whether those who sleep long hours have more vivid dreams than those in the eight-hour crowd. I do know, however, that for me, sleep has never delivered on one of its much-vaunted characteristics. The truth about this aspect of sleep--and this may be true, for all I know, for millions of others--has for decades been well disguised by the film and television industries.

In the movies, people who look utterly exhausted go to bed and fall into unconsciousness, and, thanks to a quick dissolve, wake several hours later bright-eyed, cheerful and full of pep. This bears no resemblance to my experience. I usually look my best at bedtime. My mind races along in high gear; my late-night appearance is even dapper. The following morning I generally look, and feel, like the wrath of God. There are wrinkles in my face that weren't there when I retired, as well as assorted puffs, bags, creases and lumps. There's also an emerging beard, and my hair is thoroughly mussed.

I'm glad at such that my wife, Jayne, generally retires with a "What's My Line"-type sleep mask. It never before has occurred to me that what she may be trying to keep out of her consciousness isn't the glaring crack of dawn but my own hideous morning countenance.

A hot shower, shave, breakfast and some exercise tend to make me less like the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Yet, despite what it does to my personal image, I remain at the mercy of my internal-timing mechanism. I need my sleep. And I wish science could tell me why.

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