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Sleep: The Political Revealer

Does sleep tell us all we need to know about the efficacy of our political leaders?

“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn,” so said Mahatma Gandhi. It is the body’s repair system, nature’s best shot at immortality, and the panacea of the tormented. Yet sleep is even more than this. The slumbering hours have been one of the driving forces of history and historical narrative, shaping the beings who shaped the world.

How leaders sleep – or, more precisely, how many hours they sleep — provides an interesting insight into their achievements and legacies. Health organizations recommend that, for someone between the ages of 18 and 60, seven to eight hours of shut-eye are optimal. But let’s examine what some of recent history’s more prominent figures managed to scrape by on.

Winston Churchill famously slept only four to five hours per night. Granted, he was well-known for having the occasional midday nap – as did JFK and Ronald Reagan – but with a lifestyle wrapped in cigars and booze, he still maintained a highly functioning and vigorous outward persona.

Sticking with British prime ministers for a moment, Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, was also known to get just four hours of sleep. She would insist that her ministers and advisers remain on call until 3 a.m. When John Major become prime minister, he struggled to manage the workload because, by that time, the cabinet officials were used to the grueling hours set by Thatcher.

And what of American leaders? Donald Trump skirted by on a mere four hours a night, often making calls at more unsociable hours. Abraham Lincoln was a well-known insomniac who couldn’t even sleep in the Lincoln Bed. It’s thought that Barack Obama was a five-hour-a-night man.

What do these leaders all have in common? Legacies of efficiency.

It may perhaps prove telling that President Joe Biden gets plenty of sleep. Numerous sources suggest that he is all but incommunicado from 7 p.m. until 9 a.m. the next morning. During his campaign, he became notorious for calling a lid from noon onward.

But what of sleep deprivation and sleep deficits? It is believed that the second of Sir Issac Newton’s breakdowns was caused by his lack of regular sleeping habits. And Thomas Edison — who once said: “Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days” — although famed for his heavy workload and ability to get things done, would need to take the occasional day to catch up on the lack of sleep his whirlwind work had stolen.

Here’s the rub: It seems that less sleep gives people the opportunity to achieve great things, but there is often a cost to pay.

The original Hippocratic Oath began with the words:

“I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods as well as goddesses, making them judges (witnesses), to bring the following oath … to fulfillment, in accordance with my power and my judgement.”

The Asclepius mentioned in this oath — or, more rightly, this prayer — is a mythical figure from Greek legend who was thought to be the son of Apollo and a mortal woman. The story goes that Apollo impregnated Coronis, who was then murdered by Artemis for being unfaithful to Apollo. The unborn child was cut from the womb and raised by the Olympian in the ways of medicine. There are other origin stories regarding Asclepius, but ultimately they all end with him learning the ways of healing from Apollo.

But why is Asclepius relevant to sleep? As he grew older, he became a great healer, even surpassing the skills of other notable gods. A cult grew up around him that continued for many years after he became a full deity. Worshippers created temples of healing, known as asclepeions, or dream temples. Those who were sick would attend and be invited to stay the night. They would then tell the priests of their dreams, who would recommend methods of curing their ills.

It is suspected that rather than just a normal sleep, the sick would be given a wine mixed with other substances that could produce vivid dreams or hallucinations. A type of non-venomous snake in great numbers would be free to slither through these temples and were often used in certain healing rituals; it is from the snake symbology and

Asclepius’ legend as a healer that we now have the modern symbol of medicine found posted on pharmacies, hospitals, and ambulances all over the world: two snakes entwining the rod of Asclepius.

It is at a famous asclepeion on the isle of Kos, built around the third century B.C., that it is thought the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, first learned his trade.

But what of literature? Sleep has played a major role in inspiring passions that come with dreams and the dedicated work required to produce a tome that lasts. Also, the act of sleep has been a narrative driver in some of our oldest tales.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, probably history’s oldest written story, shows us that sleep – or rather the lack of it – was seen as a source of pride many thousands of years ago. When Gilgamesh is trying to find his own path to immortality, Utnapishtim, a Noah-like character, describes how he himself was rewarded with eternal life. He then tells Gilgamesh that to achieve his own immortality, he must first start with a task: He has to stay awake for six days and seven nights, then, surely, the gods would convene and grant him his wish.

Needless to say, Gilgamesh promptly falls fast asleep, as it seems Utnapishtim suspected he would. In fact, our hero manages to stay asleep for the entire period he was supposed to remain awake, only to discover that each day a loaf of bread had been brought in to him while he slumbered.

Was Gilgamesh supposed to fail at this? Even that many years ago, was the idea that man could escape the desperate pull of sleep thought to be impossible and unappealing?

In 1959, radio DJ Peter Tripp embarked on a charity stunt that to this day remains famous. As part of a money-raising event, he pledged to broadcast his show from a booth in Times Square for 200 hours without sleep. As he was planning to take stimulants for the show, medical researchers were brought in to monitor him.

He managed to keep things together well on air, but it was off-air that he began to crumble.

From thinking that the government was after him to wild hallucinations, Tripp eventually began to believe that was not, in fact, Peter Tripp. He managed to stay awake for 201 hours. At least two other people have since broken his record. After the event, he slept for around 24 hours and claimed no permanent side effects from his challenge.

Few human necessities have captured history and legend more than sleep. It is our sweet release, it is our refuge, and, as Gandhi said, it is upon waking that we are reborn, renewed, and refreshed. Perhaps we should be looking at our culture and society as a living being. Maybe they have become too awake, too woke, if you will, and what’s needed is to make them healthy once more through the healing powers of slumber.


Read more from Mark Angelides.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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