The last thing anybody who suffers from insomnia needed to hear was this month's finding, from sleep scientists at the universities of Warwick and Naples, that consistently getting fewer than six hours' sleep a night may lead to an early death. Well, thanks a bunch: what news could be more likely to induce sleeplessness? Now, instead of just spending the small, silent hours contemplating death in the manner of Philip Larkin ("Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare"), insomniacs get to chew over the possibility that their very wakefulness might be hastening the death they're contemplating. How ironically hilarious! Apart from the bit where you die.
As the persistently sleep-deprived won't need telling, such ironies run deep in insomnia, which is victim to what the Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner calls "ironic processes of mental control": trying to get to sleep is a sure-fire way to fail. And this is only one example: efforts to suppress negative thoughts or to eliminate anxiety are all prone, Wegner argues, to the same devilish mechanism. You try to control your own mind in some way, but can't help triggering an internal monitoring process that watches to see if you're succeeding – and that disrupts the whole business. You grow hyper-alert about not being asleep, anxious about your anxiety, upset about failing to think happy thoughts. (The classic experiment involves asking participants not to think of a white bear. Try it for 60 seconds, starting... now. Failed already, right?) Trying deliberately to stay awake seems a possible solution, and can work for a while, but then you remember you're doing it only to achieve its opposite, whereupon self-monitoring kicks back in and all is lost.
Should we even be trying, though? As a rather mild sufferer, I'm on thin ice suggesting to hardcore insomniacs that there might be something in their condition worth not hating, or at least getting curious about. But don't take it from me: take it from the Romanian philosopher-insomniac EM Cioran, who saw in sleeplessness something essentially human. "The importance of insomnia is so colossal that I am tempted to define man as the animal who cannot sleep," he wrote. There is "not another animal in the entire creation that wants to sleep yet cannot".
During those sleepless night stretches, when for most insomniacs everyday worries take on giant proportions right when we can do least about them, Cioran felt himself to be encountering truth, existence in the raw, even the meaning of life. "He ultimately understood his long journeys into the sickly morning light as both crushing him and yet shaping his sensibilities," observes the Cioran scholar Gordon Marino. "What rich or strange idea," Cioran asks, "was ever the work of a sleeper?" In those weird hours, out of sync with the rest of the world, his singular creativity flourished. The experience wasn't much fun, but it was real.
Perhaps that's extreme: almost nobody these days is best advised to get less sleep. But at least Cioran reminds us that special atmospheres attach to those parts of the 24-hour cycle decoupled from the world's routine. Getting up at 4am can feel magical, if it's voluntary; medieval peasants often slept in two phases, "first sleep" and "second sleep", with a much-valued period of peaceful half-wakefulness between. Being awake at night has its upsides, though if you truly come to believe that, you'll probably find you can't do it.
• In the original version of this article, we misspelled Daniel Wegner's name. This has been corrected.