In “Decoding the Science of Sleep,” David Randall discusses the work of Virginia Tech History Professor A. Roger Ekirch. Ekirch, whose research focuses on the history of the night, noticed repeated references in Middle Ages documents to the concept of a “first sleep” and “second sleep.” In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Ekirch notes, one of the characters is said to awake from her “first sleep” then returns to bed. In another example, a medical treatise from the 15th century recommends that patients begin their “first sleep” on their right side then move to their left side afterwards, presumably for their “second sleep.” This concept, which is referred to as biphasic sleep, as opposed to our more familiar monophasic sleep, consists of two four-hour blocks with a one-hour gap in between. The gap between first and second sleep periods, according to Ekirch, was devoted to various activities, ranging from prayer to reading to contemplation (as well as other traditional nocturnal activities). Anthropologists also observed biphasic sleep in the 1960s while studying an indigenous tribe in Nigeria. In an unrelated experiment by the Psychiatrist Thomas A. Wehr, in which subjects were deprived of artificial light for a period of time, the study participants slowly reverted to a dual-segmented sleep cycle, waking up after midnight then falling back asleep for a second phase. Randall posits that the second sleep likely disappeared as a result of the increasing prevalence of artificial light, probably in the 1920s.
The loss of this biological foundation of sleep poses and interesting question for the innovator. We typically associate Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep as a valuable time in which the brain is just as active as during waking hours. Scientists have promoted numerous hypotheses concerning what precisely is occurring in the brain during REM sleep, with the most popular interpretation being that the brain is cycling through the events of the day to process and store that information and build relationships among synapses for future retrieval (parsing the data, in Information Technology parlance). This theory, though, does not consider the potential value of the time between the first sleep and second sleep. Sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs posits that this interim yet relaxing “awake” period between sleeps could serve as a stress-relieving function for humans. For innovation, it is possible that this could be a time of great insight and creativity, as the mind has worked through one set of associations from the first sleep cycle and is preparing itself for processing data in the second cycle. For those of us still tethered to a world of artificial light, any period of awakening in the middle of the night inevitably leads to greater stress because we worry about not being able to get a full night’s sleep and fret about the coming workday.
Appreciating the value of the second sleep could lead us to embrace the creative potential of this interim period. J.D. Moyer, a musician and blogger who ran his own artificial light-deprivation experiment, found himself transitioning into the dual-mode sleep cycle and commented on the bursts of creativity he experienced in the interim periods between sleep cycles. Another example, cited by Ekirch, is that of author Robert Louis Stevenson who experienced biphasic sleep during an extended hiking trip in the French highlands in 1878. Stevenson fell into a pattern of a first sleep shortly after sunset, followed by a one hour period of wakefulness around midnight. Stevenson considered this an intense and valuable period of contemplation, and referred to the interim hour between the two sleep periods as a “perfect” hour.
Another approach to creativity that focuses on a contrarian approach to the typical eight-hour night of sleep comes from Jarrod Moses, founder and CEO of the marketing firm United Entertainment Group. Moses, known for leveraging counter-intuitive approaches to team-building such as using a tour bus for his team’s travel across the country instead of flying, invented the concept of the “flip day.” On a flip day, which is conducted several times a year, Moses asks his staff to come into the office at 4:00PM and work overnight until 4:00AM. According to Moses, when “[y]ou mess with somebody’s internal clock […] some interesting ideas come out. It kind of clears your head.” The concept of flipping the workday on its head is definitely intriguing and has the potential to generate radically innovative thinking.
When we run innovation sessions, we often leverage the benefits of location-shifting to try to disrupt the usual patterns of behavior that are anathema to creative thinking. When an employee drives into the office at the same time on the same route and works on the same tasks every day then, suddenly, is put in a conference and told to be “innovative,” the results can understandably leave something to be desired. Using an offsite location for the innovation session, whether at a hotel or outdoors or other venue, can sometimes encourage free-thinking and spawn creativity.
Jarrod Moses’ concept of the flip day performs the same function as location shifting with the need to shift locations. An employee accustomed to driving in at 8:00AM will literally see the world in a different light at 4:00PM. The conference room will look very different than it would for an 11:00AM meeting, and the lack of the usual distractions (meetings, calls, etc.) in the office can further improve the creative climate. Likewise, any activities the employee does the morning and afternoon of the meeting in his or her newly found free time could also inject that person with some fresh ideas. Although the participants would likely be exhausted the following day and require a few days to shift back to a typical working schedule, the innovation burst from the flip day could be well-worth the investment of time. Some innovation workshop participants would look forward to the sheer variety inherent in the flip day concept as a break from the typical daily patterns.
For the innovation practitioner, unlocking the potential creative power of the interim gap between the first and second sleeps could prove beneficial to developing new ideas and approaches to solving old problems. Like writer’s block, nothing is more frustrating to the innovator than to sit in front of a blank sheet or paper, or worse in front of a blank whiteboard in a conference room, and attempt to generate new thinking. For any innovator bold enough to spend time away from artificial lighting to spawn the second sleep, and notebook on the nightstand might soon start to fill up with interesting ideas generated overnight, though the challenge may be figuring out how to write in the dark. Similarly, the participants in a flip day session might also drive clever and innovative thinking by stepping away from the boundaries that drive their usual daily activities. These participants, however, will have enough light to see what they are capturing in their documentation. Whether in the form of a second sleep and the creative interim period, or in the form of a lack of sleep on a flip day, the innovation practitioner can benefit from adding a consideration of sleep to his or her toolkit.
Sources: Adam Bryant, “Take the Bus, And Watch the New Ideas Flow,” New York Times (September 16, 2012). Stephanie Hegarty, “The Myth of the Eight Hour Sleep,” BBC News Magazine (February 22, 2012). David K. Randall, “Decoding the Science of Sleep,” Wall Street Journal (August 3, 2012). David K. Randall, “Rethinking Sleep,” New York Times (September 22, 2012). JD Moyer, “Sleep Experiment – A Month with No Artificial Light,” jdmoyer.com (March 4, 2010). Mark Sisson, “Is ‘8 Uninterrupted Hours a Night’ Flawed Logic?” marksdailyapple.com
Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.