To Sleep, Perchance to Dream: Celebrating World Sleep Day 2018

‘Also, I could finally sleep. And this was the real gift, because when you cannot sleep, you cannot get yourself out of the ditch—there’s not a chance.’
― Elizabeth GilbertEat, Pray, Love

Not many people know that every year the Friday before the spring equinox is celebrated as World Sleep Day. While it may seem like an opportunity for you to laze around and sleep in all day, World Sleep Day is actually an annual event organised by the World Sleep Society since 2008, which aims to celebrate the benefits of good, healthy sleep, as well as raise awareness for the sleep disorders that plague society.

Sleep has been used as symbol in literature for centuries. It has been portrayed in different ways—to parallel death, to symbolize rest, to depict a curse, and even to represent innocence.  Across the ages and across different cultures, storytellers have depicted characters that can’t sleep, sleep too much and too long, or fall into a cursed sleep. Dreams also play an important role in this literature of sleep, as dreams were often considered to be caused by gods or other supernatural creatures, influence the actions of the living, and even prophesy future events.

We have all grown up with fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, where a princess falls into a deep sleep and is awakened only by true love’s kiss. Also popular were stories of the Sandman, who sprinkled magical sand into children’s eyes to get them to sleep. In Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, sleep is used as a symbol to illustrate the awakening of the young women into adolescence. Sleep served as a way to ‘shelter’ the women from the traumas of adolescence until they were ready to reach adulthood. The long sleep in Sleeping Beauty can also be understood as an allegory for death, and her waking seen as her ‘resurrection’ into adulthood.

Sleep motifs are also found in India literature and mythology, the most famous example being that of Kumbhakarna. Like in Sleeping Beauty, the ‘curse’ of sleep is driven by other motives. When Brahma offers Kumbhakarna a boon, the other gods are terrified of his strength and the mayhem he could cause with his boon. They ask Goddess Saraswati to take control of his tongue so that he would ask to sleep instead of asking for the destruction of the devas or for Indra’s throne.

William Shakespeare wove themes and motifs of sleep into many of his plays—perhaps the most popular example is the tragedy of Macbeth. The Scottish Lord kills the king with the help of his wife, only to find that they have both been deprived of the restorative powers of sleep. Here, sleep is seen as having healing powers for both the body and mind. Once Macbeth has ‘murdered’ sleep, it has a terrible effect on their physical and mental states—Macbeth is haunted by Banquo’s ghost while Lady Macbeth begins sleep-walking and eventually kills herself.

European and American poets also used the motif of sleep in their works. John Keats, in his poems To Sleep and Sonnet to Sleep represents sleep as both a restorative power and as a metaphor for death that can help him escape his pain. Robert Frost too uses sleep as a metaphor for death in Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, proclaiming he had ‘miles to go before I sleep’.

The symbol of sleep is clearly one that has interested writers, poets and playwrights for centuries. Sleep could be a curse, a reprieve, a restorative power, or an allegory for death. In our daily lives, most of burn the midnight oil and then wake up the next day craving that extra five minutes of rest before we have to go to school or work. Our hectic, technology-driven lives do not usually allow us to sleep as much as we want. However, this World Sleep Day (16 March 2018 ), the World Sleep Society wants to promote the benefits of a healthy sleep cycle with the theme ‘Join the Sleep World, Preserve Your Rhythms to Enjoy Life’.

The 2018 World Sleep Day theme is intended to raise awareness on the variety of sleep disorders that constitute a global epidemic, as they threaten the health of nearly 45 per cent of the world population—for example, one-third of the world’s adult population suffers from insomnia and other sleep-related disorders. To do this, the World Sleep Society is trying to emphasize the importance of ‘circadian rhythms’, which is essentially your internal 24-hour clock that’s running in the background of your brain and switching between alertness and sleepiness. This circadian rhythm or ‘sleep/wake cycle’ is affected by different factors such as your hypothalamus and even whether it’s dark or light outside. So when it gets dark at night, your brain signals your body that it’s time to feel tired. Our bodies tend to naturally coincide with the day and night cycle, but when we stay up very late or get very little sleep, our circadian rhythm gets disrupted. Not only do we need a healthy sleep cycle to function in our day-to-day lives, but studies have shown that regular circadian rhythms also lower the risk of sleep disorders, mental health issues, and prevent chronic health problems like obesity and diabetes.

Our hectic schedules and attachment to technology often stop us from getting the amount of sleep we need to be healthy. Perhaps this World Sleep Day, in the interest of our physical and mental health, we can put away our laptops and smartphones and get a good night’s sleep.

References:

  1. World Sleep Day – http://worldsleepday.org/
  2. Woods, William F. 1978. ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Art of Reading Fairy Tales’. CEA Critic, 40, No.2: 18–22
  3. Pattanaik, Devdutt. 2003. Indian Mythology: Tales, Symbols, and Rituals from the Heart of the Subcontinent, Inner Traditions
  4. To Sleep – http://crossref-it.info/textguide/john-keats-selected-poems/40/3037
  5. Japp, Jeff. 2017. ‘”Sonnet to Sleep” by John Keats’, StuffJeffReads (blog), com, March 12, https://stuffjeffreads.wordpress.com/2017/03/12/sonnet-to-sleep-by-john-keats/
  6. ‘What is Circadian Rhythm?’, National Sleep Foundation, https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/what-circadian-rhythm
  7. Lally, Maria. 2017. ‘What a Bad Night’s Sleep Really Does to Your Body’, The Telegraph, March 13, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/bad-nights-sleep-really-does-body/
  8. Shukla, Shobha. 2010. ‘Do Not Burn the Midnight Oil: Sleep Well and Stay Healthy’, ThaIndian News, March 17, http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/health1/do-not-burn-the-midnight-oil-sleep-well-and-stay-healthy-world-sleep-day-is-on-19-march_100335712.html

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