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Sleep and Edison’s Error: How the lightbulb has damaged us all

Sleep and Edison’s Error: How the lightbulb has damaged us all

Patent number 223,898, filed in January of 1880, brought Thomas Edison’s lightbulb to the World. Arguably, along with Watt’s steam engine and Turing’s computer, it has made one of the most profound differences to the nature of mankind’s existence on this planet. On the positive side, it enabled modern man to take advantage of vast swathes of time previously unavailable to him. It made the streets safer and cleaner and industry far more productive. On the negative side, one of the many unforeseen consequences was that it upset the fundamental rhythms of human existence that we had lived with since the beginnings of the human race. The advantages were obvious and embraced by cultures all over the globe. The disadvantages were less clear but just as profound; a sleep-deprived, overworked, and over-stressed population living out of harmony with the natural and healthy cycles that had dictated health and happiness for countless millennia.

Edison Graphic Novel
A nice graphic novel encapsulating the life of Thomas Edison.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Alva Edison (1847 – 1931) was an American inventor responsible for a range of brilliant ideas that revolutionized American life in the late 19th and early 20th century. Like so many others who have contributed much to the modern world, he was home-schooled and avoided university altogether. After several years of making a living utilizing his skills with the telegraph, he realized that he knew enough to start making his own unique contributions.

His first effort, an electric vote counter, was a failure. Famously though, Edison was someone who prized persistence and lived up to such ideals throughout his own life. His second major invention, an improvement on the stock ticker, proved to be his big break. He set up a factory in Newark, New Jersey in 1870 manufacturing these machines and then went on to develop an improved version of the telegraph that was capable of sending up to four messages simultaneously.

From 1878 onwards, having moved to a new and, for its time, vast complex at Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison and his co-workers devoted considerable time and effort to the development of the electric light bulb. To be fair, it was not merely the bulb itself that his team developed, but a whole system of plants for the production of electric power. Thomas Edison could be criticized in many ways, but failure to think big was not one of them.

The life of Thomas Alva Edison subsequently took many interesting twists and turns. For those interested in researching this fascinating man, I would suggest consuming one of the many excellent biographies devoted to this serial inventor, influencer and profound genius.

Edison, a life of invention
A meatier biography for those who want to go a little deeper into the subject.

The Many Problems of 24 Hour Light

It’s been more than a century now since the advent of electrification came to every city and larger conurbation on the planet. Clearly, there have been a vast array of benefits from this process. On the other hand, it has also changed our day-to-day lives in ways that could not have been imagined from the vantage point of the late 19th century.

Circadian Rhythm

From the start of life on Earth, living organisms have reacted to light in ways that are only now beginning to be understood. One of the most critical of these is the circadian rhythm. This is to be found in a huge range of living organisms from mammals to fish to insects and even a huge range of plants. The word ‘circadian’ is compounded from the words ‘circa’, meaning around or about, and ‘dian’, meaning a day.

The approximate nature of the word is very apt for, surprisingly, the rhythm is set to slightly more than 24 hours. In humans, the average length is 24 hours and 15 minutes. Much the same applies for other creatures, although it is very close to a day, few, if any, have precise 24-hour circadian rhythms.

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The rhythm itself dictates, along with adenosine levels in the brain, how awake or sleepy we feel. High levels of adenosine, built up through the day, together with a low point in the circadian rhythm, will tend to lead us into sleep. Conversely, a low level of adenosine combined with a high point in the circadian rhythm, will tend to manifest itself as wide-awake consciousness.

The circadian rhythm itself reacts to the presence of light, constantly correcting itself to align with the day-to-day reality. This, of course, is all very fine when the amount of light itself is a reflection of the time of day. Once artificial electric light is brought into the picture, via Edison’s wonderful discovery and subsequent electrical developments, a rather large spanner was thrown into the works. In even more recent times, exposure to laptop and smartphone screens has further exacerbated the problem.

Melatonin Production

Melatonin is a hormone that plays a key role in the signalling process of the circadian rhythm. Again, it takes its clues from available light. In an ideal world, it would get its first signals at around dawn each morning and set off the mechanism that would lead, approximately 16 hours later, to us being ready to sleep. Unfortunately, with the arrival of the lightbulb and subsequent developments of forms of artificial light, the clues it takes are no longer reliable data. This is one of the reasons why staring at a tablet or computer screen late at night is unlikely to help you sleep.

blue blockers anti edison lightbulb
Blue light blocking glasses can be useful in the evening to increase your chances of a good night’s sleep.

Sleep Disruption

Unreliable signals and a disrupted circadian rhythm are likely to lead to sleep disruption. In our modern world, it is going to be difficult to avoid some measure of this, so divorced from natural cycles have we become. Fortunately, once we are conscious of the problem, there are ways that we can seek to correct it. Although it is nearly impossible to avoid the interference of electrical light and its affects on us, it is at least very possible to ameliorate the worst of the problems.

Three Simple Measures

There are many approaches to address this problem, some more technical, some more expensive, some more complex. What we would propose though is taking three simple measures which would cost precisely nothing and are likely to reliably increase the quality and quantity of your sleep.

1: Having a Nighttime Routine

This is perhaps the simplest and most obvious intervention that we can make. Our bodies love regularity, and nowhere is the more true than in regards to sleep. Have a set routine that begins perhaps 45 mins to an hour before getting into bed (set an alarm if you need to). My own consists of a shower, a few ablutions, reading for a short time, or listening to an interesting podcast or audiobook. If you do read, use a book (in the old-fashioned sense, or, if you must use a screen, make sure it is an e-reader. Whatever routine you choose, be sure to do it at exactly the same time each night.

2: Using Softer or no Lighting

There are several approaches that are possible here. These days, I tend to avoid direct lighting in the room that I am in for the last couple of hours of my waking day. Dimmer switches would also serve the same purpose, as would low-powered bulbs. Another alternative here is using blue blocker glasses. These are spectacles that use lenses designed in such a way that the bluer end of the spectrum is eliminated. I tried this method myself for some months, but these days prefer the simplicity of indirect lighting.

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3: Avoiding Screens for at least an hour before Bedtime

Just when we thought that modern technology couldn’t get any more invasive … it did. It has become very normal these days for people to be looking at their mobile phones the first thing in the morning and, more unfortunately, the last thing at night. Doing so disrupts the circadian rhythm and the production of melatonin, thus leading to fitful sleep or, in more extreme cases, barely any sleep at all. I would suggest avoiding more or less all visual input from these devices for at least an hour before retiring for the night.

The 24 Hour Society

In the past few decades, we seem to have inadvertently become a 24-hour society. Increasingly, the quieter periods of the day have receded back and back to the point of being barely existent. For years I would drive into London to work. Originally, I could set off at 7.30 a.m. and be assured of a relatively traffic-free commute. That soon become 7.00, then 6.30, then 6.00. Fortunately, I no longer have to participate in such soul-destroying activities, but I would not be surprised if the hours have shrunk even further by now.

I also remember a time, not that long ago, that the BBC would sign off for the evening with the national anthem and a test card at some time just after 11.00 p.m. When they extended that most of us happily greeted this expansion into the modern world. Now, TV, in one form or another, extends throughout the whole day. If not TV itself then we have YouTube, Netflix, or some other incessant flow of attention-grabbing, electronic content.

The result? Lives of endless busy-ness, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, to quote Macbeth. One wonders if we have confused activity with actually doing something? So much of this content that takes up vast swathes of our time is entirely trivial and meaningless. The latest controversy on Twitter, personal slights on Facebook, an endless stream of emails. All apparently needing urgent attention, scarcely any of which makes the slightest difference in reality. What they do manage to do, however, is steal our hours, minutes and days, our attention, and, all too often, our sleep.

Why we sleep book
Matthew Walker’s Excellent Guide to Sleep

Importance of Sleep

Although we do not, as yet, fully understand every aspect of why sleep is such a compelling necessity for human beings (and most other creatures exposed to light), it is perfectly clear that it plays a profound role in our mental and physical health. Getting less than the optimal amount of sleep will immediately, and quite dramatically, affect our efficiency. Driving when sleep deprived, for example, results in similar levels of impairment to being drunk. Those who adhere to the adage that ‘sleep is for wimps’ are simply wrong.

Mental Damage due to Lack of Sleep

Poor sleep has been linked to a range of negative psychological outcomes. Often, the relationship seems reciprocal, those with various forms of mental illness often sleep poorly whilst those suffering in this way are also likely to develop such symptoms. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and a range of other mental health conditions are often connected to sleep deprivation in this way. In the long term, poor sleepers are also more likely to suffer from various forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep and Alzheimer’s

One of the most deleterious results of missing out on sleep is that it allows the build-up of amyloid plaques. These are the same plaques that are so often observed in those who fall victims to Alzheimer’s. As noted in previous blogs, there are many dietary and lifestyle choices that contribute to the likelihood of getting or avoiding this terrible disease. Lack of sleep is to be added to the list of causal factors. It could, perhaps, even be placed as the most significant factor.

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Several studies have demonstrated the role of sleep in clearing beta-amyloid from the brain. Without sufficient regular sleep, these beta-amyloids tend to clump and form plaques. Such is the mechanism that lack of sleep plays in the genesis of Alzheimer’s disease (x).

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Raegan

For a while, back in the eighties and early nineties, a culture developed that essentially portrayed those who attempted to get adequate sleep (8 to 9 hours a night) as being somehow wimpish or lazy. Two very notable politicians of the time were the very epitome of this attitude: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan. Both were brilliant and highly influential in their own ways, strong, dynamic and iconoclastic. Each was known for their disdain of sleep, claiming to get by on just a few hours a night. Sadly, both ended their days as unrecognisable wrecks, a mere shell of their former selves. Both were victims of Alzheimer’s.

Physical Damage due to Lack of Sleep

Our physical performance is also negatively affected by a lack of sleep. It has a parlous effect on our immune system, for example. We are also more likely to suffer cardiac problems, blood pressure increases, problems with diabetes, and so on. On a more mundane level, we are also likely to gain weight. Even our testosterone levels are affected, thus impairing our sex drive. The list of physical problems due to lack of sleep goes on and on.

Cancer

Another serious problem linked to chronic sleep deprivation is the development of cancer. Those who fail to get enough sleep over a prolonged period of time are far more likely to develop many of the more common forms of this dreadful disease. The reasons for this are manyfold, but perhaps chief amongst them is the simple fact that we need sleep for our bodies and minds to be able to rest, repair, and clear out many of the toxic levels of bioactive materials that have built up during the day (x).

On the Positive Side

By now, it should be abundantly clear that there are many dangers to living a lifestyle that leads to a depletion of sleep, both in terms of quantity and quality. Beyond that, we should also make clear that there is much to be gained from the adoption of healthy and fulfilling sleep habits. Difficult as it may be in this day and age, with its ever-increasing tendency towards artificial, light-soaked environments and endless activity, it still is entirely possible.

A good night’s sleep will increase your energy levels, improve your mood, boost your productivity, protect you from a range of mental illnesses, allow you to display greater levels of attention and concentration, and decrease inflammation. The list of benefits just goes on and on, far beyond the few I have mentioned here.

Conclusion

The ubiquity of Edison’s most famous invention has brought many benefits to mankind. At the same time, it has also wrought an awful lot of damage. For the first time in the natural history of the planet, we are able to divorce ourselves from our entrainment to the natural cycles of light and dark dictated by the rotation of the planet. Millions of years of evolutionary history cannot simply be turned off at the flick of a switch. We would do well, at least as far as our mental and physical health are concerned, to remember that we are biochemical beings deeply embedded in the Earth’s cycles. We ignore this fundamental reality at our peril.

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