Last night, a student told me about The Huffington Post's nap rooms. No, I'm not recounting a bizarre dream. The class is called "Writing the Present Day Self," and the student was explaining that Arianna Huffington allows her employees to nap during work. Apparently, HuffPost employees can recoup, refresh and regenerate, making for a more focused work environment. I'm intrigued. Does napping actually help productivity?
I have a horse in this race. This winter, I developed an odd napping habit. As I described to my doctor, this new habit is different from my lifelong affection for the pleasures of plush pillows, soft blankets and high thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets (preferably Italian, if we're sharing pillow talk). I've always been a good sleeper. Without 7-8 hours at night, I'm not pleasant. I fall asleep in the passenger seat on long car rides. The years when my children were infants left me looking wan, anemic and slightly skeletal. Sometimes -- please forgive me, performer friends -- I rest my head on my husband's shoulder during a Broadway show or ballet performance and doze off. I even have what I have termed "nervous narcolepsy" -- I fall asleep instantly from stress, such as if a flight I'm on experiences severe turbulence. A recent article in The Atlantic explains that sleep enables us to better approach conflicts. Memories are consolidated and processed during sleep. We undergo a chemical response and awaken more relaxed.
Fair enough. But this winter, my sleeping has gotten out of hand. While my teenage daughter has entered the circadian sleep rhythm that allows her to traipse around our apartment in the wee hours of the night and slumber on weekends until lunch, I'm finding myself in sync with the toddlers down the hall who enjoy a morning and occasionally an afternoon nap. Is it middle-age slow down and a symptom of peri-menopause? Have my winter naps -- which, admittedly, often occur in our Eero Saaranin-designed Knoll "womb chair" under a soft oversized chenille blanket -- been a form of hibernation during a relentless winter? As the daughter of a psychoanalyst, I lean to psychosomatic explanations. Do the naps indicate depression? We've faced some hard times lately. Experts (including my husband) are proposing sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing stops or is severely reduced. The drop in oxygen causes one to awaken. People who snore can suffer from sleep apnea (yes, it's true, I snore). I am scheduling a sleep evaluation at a sleep disorders center.
Whichever my particular diagnosis, an attention to the relationships among sleep, productivity, memory and mood seem to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts. The radio station WNYC is conducting "Clock Your Sleep," a project that tracks the sleep patterns of people in the city that never sleeps. You can log in and compare your sleep patterns to those of other New Yorkers. What new truths will we discover as we turn our focus onto our sleeping selves?
The student who shared the interesting news about the nap rooms is in a class that has been reading Virginia Woolf's 1928 fictional "biography," Orlando, a book that proposes some fantastic and engaging theories about sleep. Woolf's hero/ine Orlando lives over three centuries and changes sex from male to female some time in the 17th or 18th century -- while sleeping. S/he is also a stress-sleeper. After he is abandoned by his first true love, Orlando falls into a trance for seven days. He awakens from this week-long slumber refreshed and ignorant of some of his past pain. Orlando's biographer tells the reader:
Yet some change, it was suspected, must have taken place in the chambers of his brain, for though he was perfectly rational and seemed graver and more sedate in his ways than before, he appeared to have an imperfect recollection of his past life.
Sleep alters the brain, numbing or erasing some of the pain of memory.
Orlando's narrator speculates that naps may infuse small does of death and that these "little deaths" enable us to live. Sleep turns crippling memories into golden incandescence -- who wouldn't prescribe that turn around? The book asks:
But if sleep it was, of what nature, we can scarcely refrain from asking, are such sleeps as these? Are they remedial measures -- trances in which the most galling memories, events that seem likely to cripple life for ever, are brushed with a dark wing which rubs the harshness off and gilds them, even the ugliest and basest, with a lustre, an incandescence? Has the finger of death to be laid on the tumult of life from time to time lest it rend us asunder? Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses daily or we could not go on with the business of living?
Do we need periodic small doses of Thanatos so we can effectively and efficiently get back to the business of living, to Eros and creativity?
Of course, Woolf borrows from Hamlet's famous soliloquy -- To be or not to be? -- Hamlet's struggle between the demands of life and the cessation of heartache. Hamlet fears the consequences of suicide in the afterlife. Conscience makes cowards of us all. But in Orlando, the "little deaths," the transformative trances of sleep, allow an androgynous, time-traveling poet to survive centuries. These trances seem integral to envisioning and living lives previously untold. We can't write poems, new characters, or imaginative stories if we don't make room for the dream. So, Ms. Huffington, I think my class would evoke the spirit of Virginia Woolf to endorse your "nap rooms of one's own."
To die, to sleep--
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to - 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to dream.
Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
-- Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1