Get Down and Get Dogged: What Canines Can Teach Us About Sleep
By Dr. Rubin Naiman
My dog, Isaac, was a handsome, blue-eyed Siberian husky who loved playing Frisbee. And I loved witnessing his wild passion for the game. He would seem dreamlike, almost defying gravity in slow-motion flight while twisting and lunging to capture his prize. But if ever I paused our Frisbee play to answer my cell phone, Isaac would stop in his tracks, glare at me with his head cocked, and then plop instantly down to sleep.
Like other canines, Isaac had a robust sleep-wake rhythm — a remarkable capacity for achieving peaks of activity and depths of repose. He would get thoroughly animated in pursuit of a Frisbee, his poodle playmate or, his absolute favorite, the neighbor’s tabby trespassing in our yard. But in a matter of seconds, with a change in circumstance, Isaac could drop into deep sleep like a stone into water. No, he wasn’t narcoleptic. With regard to his sleep-wake rhythm, Isaac was simply dogged.
Dogs and humans have similar sleep cycles that include a mix of stage and REM sleep. Humans, however, normally experience four or five of these cycles consecutively through the night, while dogs can have 20 or more much shorter ones scattered throughout the night and day. Dogs doggedly get up and get down in a distinct sleep-wake rhythm known as segmented sleep.
Sleeping and waking in shorter segments results in a tighter weave or integration of these states of consciousness. A dog’s ability to repeatedly get down suggests that they never venture all that far from sleep. They keep it close at hand and readily accessible. I’ve never met a dog who couldn’t nap on cue. Although Isaac would not have cared for the term, he was an exceptional cat napper. (Not to mention cat nabber.)
Historical evidence suggests that humans had more of a segmented sleep-wake rhythm prior to the industrial revolution. Rest and repose were naturally woven into the waking day and periods of nighttime wakefulness were common and considered perfectly normal. The rise of industrialization, however, restricted sleep to a limited portion of night and simultaneously escalated demands for relentless productivity.
Unlike dogs, humans now expect to sleep though the night and remain wide awake throughout the day in highly consolidated periods. While dogs keep sleep within easy reach, consolidation overly distances us from it. And while dogs modulate their passionate waking lives with regular repose, we have segregated and even bifurcated the states of sleep and waking. As a result, our waking consciousness has devolved into a relentless mental buzz and bustle known as hyperarousal.
Hyperarousal is often mistaken for passion, but it’s not. Genuine passion doesn’t arise at the expense of repose; it’s deeply rooted in it. Characterized by a chronic sense of haste reflected in rapid heart rates, speedy brain waves, elevated cortisol, and runaway thinking, hyperarousal leaves us t’wired — simultaneously tired and wired. Not surprisingly, hyperarousal is a primary factor in the contemporary epidemic of insomnia.
Dogs demonstrate a most effective approach to breaking the momentum of hyperarousal in their ability to readily submit to sleep. Their consistent willingness to come down, to descend even from the very heights of passion, is in essence, an act of humility. Dogs have, in fact, been an archetypal symbol of humility in numerous myths across time and around the globe. Humility is the antidote to hyperarousal.
The term humility is derived from the Latin, humus, meaning earth or ground. When settling in for a stretch of sleep, Isaac would intently spiral downward over a spot on the floor or the ground. In contrast to cats, who prefer to ascend to sleep, dogs literally get down. Beyond all of the psychological and biomedical complexities associated with it, dogs remind us that falling asleep is an act of humility.
But, as reflected in the arrogance of Icarus, humans have a proclivity to resist getting down. Hyperarousal stems from an addiction to perpetual soaring — a chronic resistance to letting go of our ordinary, ego-based waking self. To fall asleep naturally, as opposed to just crashing into it when our wings melt or knocking ourselves out with substances or medications, we must be willing to humbly surrender this waking self. C.S. Lewis reminds us that humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.
Although there’s been growing interest in the topic over recent years, I’m not suggesting we revert back to segmented sleep patterns. It’s simply not feasible for most of us. I am recommending that we become much more dogged about our sleep-wake rhythms. That we acknowledge the obvious interdependence of getting up and getting down. And that, in whatever ways are most personally meaningful to us, we practice surrendering our waking self at bedtime with the humility of a dog.