Magazine article The Spectator

Rhythm and Snooze

Magazine article The Spectator

Rhythm and Snooze

Article excerpt


We all know the feeling: eyelids weighted with lead, a sense of remoteness, a pleasing sinking as the waters of Lethe lap comfortingly, irresistibly over your head.

Except that you're not being talked at in a lecture, in an office meeting or at a late dinner party; you're driving. You shift in your seat but can't shift far (it's better with cruise control). You turn on the radio or music, chew something, open the window, turn up the air-conditioning, tense and relax your upper-body muscles, recite poetry, sing, take a more active interest in your driving, varying angle of entry to corners, seeing what you can achieve with gears and throttle before touching the brakes.

But then your head snaps upright, and you realise that, for a second or two - or less, you've no idea - you must have nodded. The choice is plain now: either you drift unknowingly into the Land of Nod at a moment of Nod's choosing, or you stop the car and go voluntarily. There are no compromises.

Actually, there are, albeit temporary: 200 milligrams of caffeine, equivalent of two to three coffees, can keep you alert for another two hours, unless you had no sleep at all the night before, in which case it's effective for about 30 minutes. Ditto socalled 'energy' drinks. The best combination is caffeine and napping, ideally drinking your coffee before you nap because caffeine needs 15 to 30 minutes to take effect. Frequent resource to this can keep healthy young adults functioning at near normal levels for 24 hours before wipe-out.

For me, I fear, wipe-out would come regardless, when it always does: early to mid afternoon. After years of guilt and subterfuge, I was delighted to discover that what those around me regarded as a moral failing is not only normal but inevitable. It's due to something called circadian rhythm, according to which our energy ebbs during the early hours of morning and afternoon. In a properly ordered society we'd be positively encouraged to nap in the office after lunch instead of having to search for an empty room in which to snatch a furtive 40 winks on the floor.

There's plenty more on this, with thought-provoking evidence of the effects of sleeplessness on driving, in a fascinating new paperback, Counting Sheep, by Cambridge scientist Paul Martin (Flamingo, 7.99). Martin approves of sleep, arguing that we don't get enough in modern life. …

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