Thoughts of fasting last month have turned me to other forms of physical deprivation that have been used in religious communities to great effect. During the Kirtland holy season (1835-36), the Saints occasionally held portentous meetings, familiar from broader evangelical culture, in which they stayed up all night praying and singing and worshiping, waiting for the endowment of power that would attend their earnest pleas for the divine presence.[1]Some external observers have suggested that sleep deprivation contributed to the supernaturalism that resulted from these earnest and often strenuous devotions.  There is no doubt that sleep deprivation (probably 24 hours or more of uninterrupted wakefulness, perhaps less) leads to worse cognitive function–concerns over the effect of sleep deprivation on cognition has underlay a variety of complex and possibly counter-productive attempts to limit the number of hours that physicians-in-training can work. It is reasonably clear that in the animals in which the experiments have been allowed, long-term wakefulness (days to weeks) is fatal. In humans, by 48-72 hours almost everyone is micro-napping (this recognition is the conceit behind the recently remade Elm Street nightmares). Scientists of course have no real idea why we sleep, just that we need to, and theologians aren’t much further along.

On the scientist end, there are a variety of hypotheses: Perhaps we sleep to allow restoration of spent body systems, perhaps we sleep to allow the brain to process the dizzying array of signals it has encountered during the day, maybe we sleep because it’s metabolically advantageous, and evolution doesn’t work fast enough to delete sleep in an age of super-sized McHumans.

On the theologian end there are other hypotheses: Perhaps we sleep because it unveils the other world to our sight. Maybe we sleep because it is during sleep that we know our spiritual mettle (the Desert Fathers and their near obsession with wet dreams comes to mind). Many religious traditions (and one of the more onerously irreligious traditions, the Viennese delegation) emphasize the significance of dreams, those motley irruptions of consciousness into sleep.

We have used sleep as a metaphor or metonyme for death. We have hoped that in fact the bodies of our loved ones (and our future selves) are sleeping until a great awakening that will come with the return of Jesus. John Donne has marvelously conjured the image of Death as a fraud because sleep can as easily mimic death as a potion.[2] In our age of cultural inadequacy in the face of death, we often yearn to die, in advanced age, in our sleep.  Nabokov in his characteristically nimble and stimulating prose presented in his autobiography the image of a child terrified of sleep, intensely fearful of the possibility that letting his consciousness fade into nothingness, however temporarily, would be the utter loss of that consciousness.[3]

The Book of Mormon loves the image of sleeping, whether a converting trance (Alma the Younger or the Lamanite King), or a stratagem for escape (intoxicating guards so that they slept as the prisoners fled their incarceration), or the many dreams that communicated divine messages to eager listeners. The early Restoration had a similar love for sleeping communications, whether the complex and fascinating visitations of Moroni to the slumbering boy prophet or the adult dreams of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young that have reached us in manuscript form[4].

I have had a complex relationship with sleep over the years. My job often requires me to be awake for up to 36 hours at a time. I never have supernatural experiences, and I have not observed lapses in judgment. Mostly I am moody for the last 8 hours of such a shift. When I was younger, occasionally we would be called on to perform for 48 or even 72 hours with minimal chance for short naps.  That is the professional sleeplessness.

Sleeplessness for pleasure has been somewhat different. I remember fondly how marvelously funny we all were in our late teens staying up until 6am on a Saturday just to enjoy each other’s company and discover just how funny we could be. Even when I dabbled with intoxication in the last couple year’s of my agnosticism, I was never as pleased with the humorous camaraderie drunk as I was with our camaraderie sleepless.

I also cherish from adolescence a distinct memory of a tent in a rain storm, of a group of friends praying well after midnight for God to bless us with greater wisdom (this came, naturally, after I had abandoned agnosticism at the age of 18) and a convicting witness, of our sincere and tired tears on our cheeks merging with the drops falling into the tent’s fly, one of my own first experience’s with the metaphysical law of correspondence, a time when I felt intimately connected with the universe through the divine power unleashed in the company of other believers hungry for contact with the divine. I remember from college chartered buses from Boston to DC for us to visit the temple as a student congregation, the incredible sense of friendship and community that came from conversations held between 2 and 4am, in anticipation of our arrival around 6am to the temple grounds in Washington.

What are your relationships with sleep? Thoughts about its meaning or function, about whether sleeplessness could be used appropriately in some circumstances?


[1] Mark Staker covers this in his Ohio Revelations. I cover this in chapter 6 of my Early Mormon Conquest of Death, which is probably still about 18-24 months out from publication.

[2] This is from Death, Be Not Proud.

[3] Speak, Memory, one of my favorite books of all time. Like Proust but readable.

[4] Look for a treatment of one such fascinating dream in an essay my wife and I are doing on Embodiment and Sexuality for a Handbook of Mormonism.


  1. I wanted to stay true to my commitment to post each Fast Sunday, but I’m only back in electronic range for a couple hours today, so I may not be able to respond to comments on this post.

  2. This is great. You know, whenever I start to think that maybe science really has things figured out, I have to remind myself that we don’t know what every human brain does for 8 hours a night.

    And dreams in particular just go to show that the persistence of something absolutely bizarre makes it normal.

  3. I’ve heard it said that the more you sleep in your early years of life, the longer and healthier life you will live. If what you say is true, that science really has little explanation for the importance of sleep, and that theologies really have no answer either, I’m rather amazed at how little we truly understand our own physical bodies. I mean, we sleep one full third of our entire lives! That’s 33% of our entire lives right there.

    As for my relationship with sleep, on only a few occasions did I press my luck against sleep. One in particular led to the best sleep I ever had. Twice I stayed awake for a full 24 hours, once for 30 hours and once for 40 hours. But none of those produced the best sleep I ever had. In February 2002, I went on vacation in Romania. My flight left in the evening out of Boston. I flew to Zurich. From Zurich I would take the train eastward. (Flights to Zurich were far cheaper than straight to Romania, and the Eurorail pass was very cheap). I didn’t sleep on the flight to Zurich, so I arrived in Zurich at about 10am not having slept since the previous day. I stayed awake all day in Zurich until the night train to Budapest. I slept a little on that train. The next day, I took a longer train from Budapest to Bucuresti, another night train. I slept a little again. My body was exhausted. Upon arriving in Romania, I met up with friends who took me around to get a snack and to talk. I then went to my friend’s house whereupon I fell asleep on the bed at 10pm that Friday night. The next day, I woke up at noon. I slept for fourteen hours! That was the most refreshing sleep I ever had. I felt so good that afternoon.

  4. Sleep deprivation has no appeal to me. I’m up too late as it is.

    I remember Eliade talking about the quest to conquer sleep in the epic of Gilgamesh (he ultimately fails) and relates this to the apostles sleeping at Gethsemane. Eliade had his on “war on sleep” in trying to cut another minute off his sleep time every night.

  5. During my years as an agnostic, I experimented with narcotic derived sleep deprivation as well- and it was never as satisfying or earthly as staying awake because of the joy of being with another person. Motherhood brought a wholly new and previously unimagined form of sleep deprivation, and taught me the depths of what I actually could manage. Now, my sleep deprivation is more about the intersection of full-time school and full-time single parenthood.

    It fascinates me how sleep can become as delicious as the finest fruit when we don’t get it. Hallucinations, breaks in awareness (are these micro-naps?). I’ve thought these might be cracks in the sky, where if we remember to look up, maybe we can see God looking down.

    I love the Nabokov quote.

  6. Each and every time I have to pull an all-nighter as a result of my profession, the experience cannot be described as anything other than a “long, dark night of the soul” — it invokes a sense of despair.

  7. I’ve longed for good sleep since my first baby was born. I don’t see God when I go without sleep but people who run into me sleep-deprived think they’ve seen a supernatural creature. The kind that rips your throat out.

    I have flying dreams that leave me refreshed and happy. I’m told by psychics that my spirit is actually leaving my body. I don’t know. Or care. I love those dreams. I also love the dreams about babies.

    Bill, who is one of the physically strong people I know, falls deeply asleep about 10 seconds after his head hits the pillow. I’m not exaggerating, I’ve timed it. He sleeps so hard a cat burglar could steal the hearing aids out of his ears. I think that’s why he has so much energy. He dreams but not like mine. His are simpler. He hits the ground running and works till nightfall.

    In his old age he’s started taking a 20 minute “power nap.” I envy him no end.

    It takes me hours to fall asleep and that’s with drugs. And I’m always tired.

    Well that’s more than you needed to know about our sleeping.

    But I personally think how you sleep determines the quality of the rest of your day.

    Any spiritual experience you get when you’re exhausted is not from God. This makes me think of those inspirational deals where people spend 3 days (and most of the nights) exploring their inner psyches and at the end feel inspired and renewed and it’s supposed to change your life but in truth it gives you an artificial high for a couple of days.

  8. Peter LLC says:

    sleep can become as delicious as the finest fruit when we don’t get it

    the experience cannot be described as anything other than a “long, dark night of the soul”

    Preach on, Tracy and John. My period of “professional sleeplessness” has forever cured me of ever viewing sleep deprivation as a net positive.

  9. I’m so sleep deprived right now, I don’t know what I’m typing. I’ve had about 3-4 hours of sleep in the past 40 hours. Not sleeping makes me instantly ill — my immune system drops like a rocket and I pick up colds, coughs, viruses. They hit me hard and FAST. I also get really grouchy. Grumpy. mean.

    I love sleep. I love love love it. I’m going to sleep right nowwwwwwwwwwwwwww………………

  10. Sam, this was especially poignant to me. In this past week I took our preschool age son to have surgery under general anesthesia. It was a very minor operation that I knew would be no problem at all. But for weeks there has been a primal fear in me about specifically the general anesthesia. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was sending him to a temporary death, from which he might not return. I’ve never been afraid of regular sleep that I recall, but this medical sleep was very disconcerting. It helps to see my sleep-death fears contextualized in a long literary, philosophical and religious tradition. Thank you for writing this. (By the way, his operation was fine.)

  11. I’ve never had a flying dream that I can remember.

  12. By The Rules says:

    Having worked rotating graveyard shifts to get through my undergraduate degree, I cherish stable circadian rhythms.

    There is only one reason to be up at unearhtly hours, and this ain’t it!

  13. John Mansfield says:

    Several years ago I was experimenting with pattern recognition using simulated neural networks. Though they’ve moved away from their origins, simulated neural networks began with the hope of understanding better how real neural networks function; that hope hasn’t panned out so well, but there are tantalizing hints, one of which is relevant to this post.

    A simulated network is trained by feeding it patterns and providing feedback to adjust the connections between neurons, strengthening correct pattern recognitions and weakening incorrect recognitions.* Something that has been tried with some success is an unlearning phase during which the network is feed random inputs and any recognitions are penalized, sort of telling the network “That rule of thumb that you derived earlier doesn’t mean as much as you think it does.”

    * You’ve likely seen this kind of thing with your children. A two-year-old sees a broken corner of a sidewalk, points out the three vertices of the corner, and says “Triangle.” His father says, “That’s right. It’s a triangle.” Looking at the evening sky, the child sees a gibbous moon, and says, “Soap.” The father says, “No, it’s not a piece of soap. That’s the moon.”

  14. britt k says:

    My baby is 3 weeks old, so I sleep like a baby.

    I really like sleep. After having twins i remember my mom telling me that there have been studies using sleep deprivation (especially sleep with random periodic wakings) and noting that it induces depression.

  15. I often tell my students that Borges is best understood if one discusses him at two in the morning.

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