Marcel Proust on his Deathbed, Man Ray, Gelatin silver print, 1922
Marcel Proust on his Deathbed, Man Ray, Gelatin silver print, 1922

It’s September at Princeton. Advice on courses, interviews, precepts, bicker, tryouts, rush, networking, meningitis B filters down through campus emails, info sessions, friends. It’s overwhelming. It’s no wonder we have trouble sleeping, especially at the start of the school year. And it’s no wonder that when we do fall asleep we so often dream of being unprepared. You forget to put on pants before a high school party, you can’t load Google Maps as you hurtle down a highway ramp, you sleep through your alarm clock and your professor hates you. You wake up nervous, anxious, and sleep-deprived.

Princeton is known for its adherence to traditional social formulas. I’ve found students also want to stick to strict sleeping formulas. Personally I’ve always believed that eight hours is the magic number and that a full night of sleep is crucial to regulating mental stress, performing well in school, and functioning physically. So I prepare and plan for sleep: I’m going to bed now so I can set my alarm for then. I count down the minutes I lie awake as if they will have a precisely inverse correlation to my competence the next day. I worry.

My first night at Princeton, I scour the Internet to see if my experience is universal. But instead, I find myself learning about the multitude of historical and cultural differences in how we conceptualize sleep and dreams.

In many cultures, fixed bedtimes and uninterrupted sleeping schedules do not exist. In Papua New Guinea, there are nocturnal initiations; in Bali there are reburials and religious ceremonies and shadow plays; in the Amazon, there are middle-of-the-night awakenings to drink tea, warm up, and hear animals. In contrast to our culture, “the boundary between sleep and wake is fluid,” anthropologist Carol Worthman says. These cultures sleep collectively and nap opportunistically. Researcher Yasmine Musharbash noted how the Warlpiris she lived with for 18 months in northern Australia never got grumpy when woken up in the middle of the night.

Psychologists think that the more we accept that we aren’t in control of our sleep or our dreams, the easier it will be to fall asleep. They also think that, if you can’t fall asleep, it’s more effective to get up and do an activity until you get tired again instead of lying awake. Roger Ekrich found that people in the early modern West slept when the sun went down, and woke again in the middle of the night so that they could talk, try to conceive children, read, brew beer, pray. (All of which have probably been attempted at some point in our dorm rooms?)

Ekrich found that a “first” and “second” sleep were actually common throughout much of history. In his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, he lists hundreds of examples of two-part segmented sleep, derived from sources ranging from Homer’s The Odyssey to Charles Dickens to the Tiv tribe in Nigeria. “Don Quixote followed nature, and being satisfied with his first sleep, did not solicit more. As for Sancho, he never wanted a second, for the first lasted him from night to morning”… “And at the wakening of your first sleepe You shall have a hott drinke made, And at the wakening of your next sleepe Your sorrowes will have a slake.” Early English ballad, Old Robin of Portingale… Maybe one day at Princeton: “You shall fall asleep at your desk, wake up to frantically finish your essay, and then post a Snapchat with a filter hiding your under-eye bags and communally sharing your sleepless angst — all before the onset of the second sleep.”

As someone who has always fixated on getting those elusive eight hours, it’s comforting for me to realize that unbroken sleep is not an ideal nor a reality held cross-culturally or historically. The uninterrupted sleep that is so embedded in our society may have become common as recently as the introduction of the electric light. (My cat is one of the highest functioning creatures I know and she never sleeps more than a few hours at a time.)

Considering the uncertainty that still pervades the question of how to sleep and dream “best”, it seems almost impractical to try to prepare for sleep. Sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs hypothesizes that the period between first and second sleep played a crucial role in relaxation. People traditionally used that time to naturally regulate stress and meditate on their dreams.

As a culture, we place a high premium on readiness, certainty, and self-reliance. We prepare and hone our different public personas. We’re taught from a young age to manage and arrange and organize so that we will have a cushion to mitigate the risks of the new. We individually brace ourselves against uncertainty, instead of culturally embracing it. Maybe the more unpreparedness and spontaneity we encounter and accept in our awakened states, the less it will haunt our subconscious.

An alternative—or perhaps complementary—angle on the sleep question is that there may be real creative benefits to a more fragmented sleeping pattern. When you are woken from sleep, studies show that you perform better on tests requiring fluid reasoning and flexible thought. When you’re in a hypnotic-induced sleep, you can more easily create spontaneous jokes. Imaginative children report more sleep disturbance—a theory known as creative insomnia. Religious traditions also view sleep through a more creative lens. The Islamic Qu’ran and the Jewish Midrash state that during sleep, one’s soul ascends to heaven and is returned by God. Some Native American traditions hold that a soul leaves a person while he sleeps. His dreams are the soul’s means of communicating its experiences outside of the body.

In addition, the more broken your sleep is, the better you can remember your dreams. A Stanford anthropologist, T. M. Luhrmann, wrote about sleep in a rural community in Indonesia. The Toraja have punctuated sleep because they lie together in huts. Every time they awake or wake each other, they are able to remember more of their dreams.

Dreams first live in fleeting working memory. To make them stick in permanent memory is tricky. Aptly named dream researcher Robert Stickgold gives the example of hearing a five-digit number and then having to recite it backward before it disappears from memory. Researchers found that “high” dream recallers have a more active temporoparietal junction, which works to encode and retain dreams. These high dream recallers have twice as much wakefulness during sleep as low dream recallers. They memorize their dreams during the brief periods between sleep.

In my dreams I’m usually more creative and spontaneous than in real life. I had a dream that Lord Voldemort was interviewing me and then took my arm. I was scared he was going to draw the Dark Mark, but instead he drew a thoughtful henna design with purple puffy paint. I was relieved when he told me it was washable. Recently I dreamed I missed a tour bus taking me on a school field trip because coatis – aggressive South American raccoons that I encountered this summer – had gotten inside my dorm room at school and I had to extract them. (I did so by strategically placing a trail of ham and cheese medialunas, Argentina’s beloved croissants, down the hallway. They ate it up.)

Luhrmann writes, “Americans think about sleep as a biological function that needs to be managed.” But 68% of college students report having trouble falling asleep some nights. Knowing that not everyone gets eight hours of rest will hopefully reduce the kind of anxiety that makes it impossible to fall back asleep. And if you really have trouble snoozing soundly? At least you’ll remember your dreams and hone your creativity.