The Intertwined Development of Technology and the Sleep-Wake Binary: A New Pattern of Unnatural Breaks

Nina Naghshineh
New York University

Citation information: Naghshineh, Nina. 2017. The intertwined development of technology and the sleep-wake binary: A new pattern of unnatural breaks. The NYU Student Journal of Metapatterns, volume 1, paper 1. Available at:


The sleeping-waking pattern has defined humanity throughout history. This pattern can be analyzed by other patterns that ultimately constitute the human circadian rhythm. Unnatural external stimuli that create breaks in the circadian rhythm have observable negative health impacts. Traditionally, before the advent and subsequent widespread use of electricity, most societies used light and dark cycles paired with natural stimuli to dictate sleeping patterns. Yet, unnatural breaks in sleeping cycles are becoming increasingly common due to technology. Changes in the stimuli that impact the circadian rhythm are developing over time, such as electricity and then technologic devices. Using the metapatterns of breaks, binaries, cycles, and stages, the following paper will discuss the patterns inherent in sleeping and waking, developments, impacts, and implications.


Each human has his or her own individual sleeping and waking habits. Yet ultimately these patterns are dictated by the internal, biological circadian rhythm, or at least they should be. In this current age of technological tyranny, humans’ myriad devices are having a significant impact on sleeping-waking patterns1.

The patterns of breaks, binaries, cycles, and stages are defined as metapatterns by Tyler Volk in his book Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind.2 Thus in this paper metapatterns will be used as a tool to investigate natural and unnatural breaks in sleeping-waking patterns and their subsequent implications. The following figure shows the sleep-wake binary-cycle and its breaks within the two stages I will discuss.

Figure 1. Historical phases of the sleep-wake binary-cycle, showing their natural and unnatural breaks. Source: the author.

The widespread, continuous use of different forms of technology creates what will henceforth be called “unnatural breaks” in the sleeping-waking pattern. An example of unnatural breaks is when a friend sends a text at 3am, startling you out of a deep slumber. Unnatural breaks may be contrasted with “natural breaks,” or times when your body tells you that it needs rest. An example of a natural break is numerous yawns and fuzzy thoughts that lead to a quick afternoon nap that allows you to forge on through the rest of the day.

These two types of breaks have discrete impacts on the patterns that constitute the sleeping-waking pattern. Sleeping and waking are a binary that functions as a cycle, repeating over and over throughout each human’s lifetime; yet as generations pass and, on a larger scale, societies develop, the binary within a cycle is changed due to external stimuli, which creates differential stages of progression. In particular, two cultural stages (“phases” in this paper) will be discussed, namely pre-electricity and modern times.

The following discussion will delve into the intricacies of human circadian rhythms and the consequences of their disruption from unnatural breaks. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that unnatural breaks can be categorized as externally induced, while natural breaks are usually internally induced. This is not to say that natural breaks are always internally provoked, for sunlight and darkness are cues to one’s biological clock, but unnatural breaks are almost always external.3 Next, this discussion will lead into how two historical phases of the sleeping-waking pattern developed over time and are still changing. Finally, potential negative and positive implications of the development of the sleep-wake cycle will be given as well as suggestions for the future.

Ultimately, the following discussion indicates that particular cultural changes are causing the waking-sleeping binary-cycle to transform, resulting in its dissolution. This suggests that not only are metapatterns all around us, but their maintenance is often vital for sustaining equilibrium in a system.

The circadian rhythm

The circadian rhythm is regulated by two suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) of the anterior hypothalamus. Light exposure gives cues to the SCN to regulate physiology and behavior.4 Thus sunlight and darkness act as external stimuli that create natural breaks in the sleeping and waking binary-cycle. Most importantly, when the SCN are exposed to daylight, they signal the pineal gland to become inactive, stopping its production of melatonin, which allows you to become more alert, as seen in Figure 2.5 Yet these natural external cues are not necessary for the functioning of the circadian rhythm, they simply keep it aligned over time; internal cycling of myriad hormones creates the ultimate framework of internal breaks in the sleep-wake pattern.6 For example, around 2pm there is a drop in your core body temperature, which signals the production of melatonin, making you feel tired until about 4pm.7 When these internal break signals are ignored they can have harmful health impacts.

Figure 2: Diagram of connections between the parts of the brain involved with circadian rhythm functioning.8

Unfortunately, an increasingly large portion of the population is at a high risk of environmentally driven circadian rhythm and sleep disruption, which can make humans more susceptible to certain diseases.9 For example, sleep disruption has been shown to result in an altered glucose metabolism; this can impact insulin production and have obesogenic effects. Lack of sleep can also lead to abnormal functioning of the immune system; a study shows that men with one week of sleep restriction have unusually high levels of circulating white blood cells.10 Another study shows that the advent of electric lights resulted in more daytime hours spent out of the sun, more waking hours spent under artificial lights, and thus a delayed timing of the circadian clock (7). Moreover, electric lights and technological device screens in the blue part of the spectrum send cues to your brain that it is still daytime outside, which alters the natural cycling of melatonin in your body.11 This can impact physiology and behavior and create the aforementioned susceptibility to particular diseases.12

Historical phases of the sleep-wake pattern

Here two historical phases of the sleep-wake pattern are discussed, demonstrating how the pattern is changing in response to cultural shifts over time. Evidence from both science and history is accumulating which suggests that eight-hours of sleep may be unnatural.13 Two particular studies show that given the chance to be free of modern life, people would have a segmented sleep-wake cycle that is more attune to natural, internal breaks, as diagramed in Figure 114 In the 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr performed an experiment in which he put adults into a dark space for fourteen hours at a time.15 By the fourth week, the participants developed a seemingly unusual sleeping pattern: the subjects would sleep for about four hours, wake up for one to two hours, and then fall asleep for another four hours.16 In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch published a research paper showing that people used to sleep in two distinct chunks. Diaries, court records, medical books, and literature describe how before the advent of electricity people had a first sleep, followed by a waking period, and then a second sleep. During this waking period people were often very active; they would read, pray, have sex, etc., as seen in Figure 3.17

Figure 3: Roger Ekirch notes that Jan Saenredam’s 1595 engraving (above) provides evidence of activity at night.18

On the other hand, in modern times, with the widespread use of electricity and technology, unnatural external breaks have penetrated the sleep-wake pattern. A sleep poll conducted by the American Sleep Foundation found that 95% of Americans use some sort of electronic device before bed; these devices often emit light in the blue part of the spectrum, thus impacting the sleep-wake pattern.19 Moreover, sleep deprivation from the overuse of technology is becoming increasingly common; that eight-hour chunk of sleep is often significantly reduced because you have to finish a level on a video game or you can’t wait to watch the next episode of a new TV series on Netflix. Therefore, not only are people taught that they should strive for a minimum of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep nightly, but almost a third of working adults in America get six or fewer hours of sleep each night.20 Although the manipulation of natural and unnatural breaks can have negative impacts on human health, unnatural externally induced breaks—characteristic of modern society—are harmfully fragmenting sleep cycles, as diagramed in Figure 1.


The development of phases in the sleep-wake binary-cycle is progressing overtime, increasing in magnitude of disruption. Electricity and other technologies have allowed human societies to advance in so many ways, but at a price: unnecessary stress, poor immune systems, obesity, and outbreaks of disease are so common today partially due to poor sleeping habits and the breakdown of sleep cycles. Can the cycle be repaired in the future? Or will the next phase of the sleep-wake pattern be even more fragmented than the current incarnation? As the external unnatural breaks are mainly driven by technological progress, it seems as though the intertwined development of technology and the wake-sleep binary are doomed to create a positive feedback loop of sleeplessness. Signals that this may happen are already present: people of all ages passively watching television into the early morning, active submersion into video games that make the hours fly by; technology has even penetrated seemingly sacred parts of the real world in the form of virtual reality programs that mutually consume our waking and potential sleeping hours. The most likely way that these trends will infiltrate the future is through the generations of children being born today; these beings will grow up in the midst of a historical phase that advocates the supremacy of technology over sleep, maybe even leading into a new phase in which sleep is downloaded onto a chip implanted in everyone’s brains—having negative impacts on sleep consolidation processes.

Hope and recommendations

Even so, there is some hope for regenerative progress toward more natural sleep habits predicated on internally induced breaks. This can be seen with Google encouraging its employees to take naps when they feel tired throughout the work day. Unique progressive schools don’t give required homework, instead prompting their students to go outside, learn by doing, and get enough sleep. It is highly unlikely that human societies can return to sleep habits common to the pre-electricity era; there are too many distractions and responsibilities present in modern times. Yet there are ways to prevent the aforementioned positive feedback loop: limit the technology use of children from a young age; listen to your body; remember that the virtual world does not replace real human interaction; experience the outdoors; etc. Ultimately for the system to return to homeostasis, social and cultural mechanisms must rein in the dominance of technology in favor of the historic, natural sleep-wake pattern.


This discussion of circadian rhythms, their natural breaks, how they can be altered by unnatural breaks, and consequences, proved to be set within a greater pattern of a two-phased historical progression of culture; the transition from the pre-electricity phase to the modern phase created a change in the types of breaks within the sleep-wake cycle. Metapatterns served as a guiding tool for the exploration of this holarchy, leading to insights regarding the future of the intertwined development of technology and the wake-sleep binary; it may be doomed to persist detrimentally or, more positively, cultural forces will unite to elicit a shift to a subsequent historical phase dominated by responsible technology use and sleep-wake cycles predicated on natural breaks.

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