Posted March 30, 2013 08:37 am

While you were sleeping...

After 2-5 months of hibernation, bears in the Juneau area will soon be getting up or are out of their dens already. Although hibernating, bears don’t necessarily sleep the entire time.  But, while in hibernation, they don’t need to eat or drink—a good evolutionary survival strategy during winter when food is scarce.  Long periods of inactivity seem normal to us when we think about bears, but what about humans?

We are all told that 8 hours of sleep per night is optimum.  True—many of us rarely get it, but it is a nice round number, so I’ll stick with it.  If you think about this number in the broader scheme of things---say like your life—you’ll optimally spend about one-third of your life asleep.  No wonder time seems to go by so quickly!  In fact, during just 2013 alone, you’ve already been asleep for about a month.  Perhaps that is why you can’t get that “to do” list completed.

Maybe Washington Irving was not so far off when he penned the famous short story “Rip Van Winkle.”  Rip, whom we are told was prone to laziness and neglect of his farm, one day went out wandering in the mountains with his dog.  He spied a man carrying a keg and followed him, and stumbled upon a strange hollow filled with silent bearded men.  He exchanged no conversation with these strangers, but as he observes them, Rip partakes of some of their liquor and then falls asleep.

When he awakes, the whole world has changed.  Rip has grown a long beard, his clothes are in tatters, his dog is gone, and his gun as rusted.  Venturing further afield, he finds his former village, but no one knows him.  His wife has died and he has slept through a war.  Strange doings, indeed.

While nothing so dramatic will likely happen to any of us, our necessary need for sleep does mean some interesting outcomes and perspectives:


  • By the time you are 18, you will have slept through 6 years of your life
  • You’ll spend 16 months of your 4 years at college asleep
  • You’ll be unconscious during 10 years of a 30-year marriage
  • By the time your kid is 18, you will have slept through another 6 years of your life
  • And, over the course of a good full 90-year life span, thirty years of that will be spent asleep

Why do humans needs to sleep?  There is not an exact answer to this question and different theories have been advanced.  Some of these include that, during sleep, the body repairs itself, growth hormones are released, and that long-term memory can be consolidated.  I personally like what William Dement, founder of the Stanford Sleep Research Center said on the subject, “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.”  Touché!

So, as the world starts to waken up from a long winter slumber, I’ll definitely enjoy the increasing daylight, and I’ll also continue to enjoy those wondrous hours spent sleeping.  I close with a favorite quote from William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’:


“…Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”


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