Here and Meow: What Cats Can Teach Us About Sleep
By Dr. Rubin Naiman
I’ve never been much of a cat person. I’ll confess that until recently I couldn’t understand the lure these mysterious creatures had for so many. Beyond their penchant for catching the occasional rodent, it seemed they were little more than hypersomnolent stoics who couldn’t distinguish a scratching post from a fine leather sofa.
After considerable observation of our feline friends, however, I’ve come to wonder if they might actually be from another world — a parallel universe where rest and sleep are held in the highest esteem. Because they are on exceptionally good terms with it, I believe cats have much to teach us about the secrets of natural sleep.
Cats commonly sleep between 12 and 16 hours a day — more than most mammals and up to twice as much as humans. Why do they sleep so much? Well, because they can. Cats are predators with few natural enemies, meaning they live under the auspices of a generous, genetically-endowed sense of physical safety. They are, after all, first cousins to the king of the jungle. It’s obvious to anyone who has ever watched a cat sleep that they feel remarkably safe and secure.
Cats remind us of the critical role of personal safety and security in obtaining healthy sleep. Much of human sleeplessness is linked to hyperarousal, a chronic state of hypervigilance associated with an underlying lack of psychological safety. Feeling safe and secure is not about denying the reality of life’s risks, but of learning to relax despite them.
As predators, cats are also inclined to engage in significant spurts of physical activity. They can expend extraordinary amounts of energy stalking, pouncing and wrestling their prey into submission. Even when this prey is a tattered toy mouse, cats generally obtain substantial amounts of exercise. Relative to cats, humans are significantly less animated. Despite the fact that cardiovascular activity provides substantial sleep benefits, nearly half of all adults do not meet established minimal guidelines for adequate exercise.
Cats seem never to venture very far from sleep. Though they might be fully roused one moment, engaging in passionate play or serious stalking, cats seem able to slide effortlessly back into rest and sleep the next. Keeping sleep in close proximity to waking leaves cats so adept at napping that we’ve named a version of it after them.
Although we can only speculate about their subjective experience, cat behavior suggests they live with an unusual sense of continuity between waking and sleep. In contrast, most of us distance ourselves from sleep during our waking day. We relate to sleep the way we relate to our bed — we’re with it by night but keep it under cover by day. We’ve come to believe that civilized waking must be positioned far from the wilds of sleep. Consequently, millions of us think we’re just incapable of napping.
I believe the unique features of cats’ sleep stem from the fact that they live in another world. Cats are crepuscular — that is, they are biologically programmed to be most wakeful and active in the twilight hours of dusk and dawn. Cats reside in the boundary between night and day — between waking and sleep. In fact, cats challenge the commonly held notion that it’s impossible to be simultaneously asleep and awake. Not only are they able to sleep while sitting up, their sense of smell and hearing can remain active during most of their sleep.
In sharp contrast, it appears that modern humans literally have diminished awareness of twilight. The majority of us routinely sleep through dawn and rush through dusk. One could argue that humans have become “anti-crepuscular” and, consequently, are out of touch with the natural, open corridor that bridges day and night as well as waking and sleep. For millions of us, transitioning to sleep is like crossing a highly secure border between two polarized states. Having disengaged so thoroughly from sleep by day leaves us at greater risk for insomnia — of getting stopped and stranded in this corridor by night.
Cats have high security clearance allowing them to move about freely in this borderland. Long ago the Druids believed cats had magical powers that could facilitate crossings between the spiritual and physical worlds. Cats live in a serene hybrid state of twilight consciousness where elements of sleep and waking can sweetly commingle. Could it be that this exceptional relationship cats have with sleep is the secret behind their unflappable poise, childlike curiosity and notorious nine lives?
Become a copycat. There is most certainly something about twilight that invites us deeply into the present moment — the here and now. Experiment with carrying elements of sleep with you throughout the day. Not as sleepiness or fatigue, but in the form of a comfortable sense of serenity, poise and relaxation. It’s not surprising that being in the present moment is associated with deeply relaxed states such as those found in prayer, meditation, yoga, and moments of intimate connection. When we are in the here and now, we often look like we are partially asleep.
Cats are the most popular pets on Earth. Clearly, they’ve got something over us. Some have speculated that cats believe they’re domesticating humans. If so, I think they still have a long way to go.