8 hour sleeping is a modern invention.
Imagine you are a denizen of the 18th century. It’s just past 8:30 P.M., you’ve got your night-cap on. You blow out your candles and fall asleep to the smell of the wax and the wick, which gently fills the air around your bed. Some hours pass. 2:30 AM. You awaken, grab your coat, and visit the neighbors because they, too, are up. Doing quiet reading, prayer, or even having sex. Well, apparently before the age of electricity, sleeping twice a night was completely ubiquitous.
Back in those times, we slept twice a night, getting up for an hour or two for recreation before heading back to bed until dawn.
The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.
His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.
References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.
“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.
An English doctor wrote, for example, that the ideal time for study and contemplation was between “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Chaucer tells of a character in the Canterbury Tales that goes to bed following her “firste sleep.” And, explaining the reason why working class conceived more children, a doctor from the 1500s reported that they typically had sex after their first sleep.
Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past is replete with such examples.
But just what did people do with these extra twilight hours? Pretty much what you might expect.
Most stayed in their beds and bedrooms, sometimes reading, and often they would use the time to pray. Religious manuals included special prayers to be said in the mid-sleep hours.
Others might smoke, talk with co-sleepers, or have sex. Some were more active and would leave to visit with neighbours.
As we know, this practice eventually died out. Ekirch attributes the change to the advent of street lighting and eventually electric indoor light, as well as the popularity of coffee houses. Author Craig Koslofsky offers a further theory in his book Evening’s Empire. With the rise of more street lighting, night stopped being the domain of criminals and sub-classes and became a time for work or socializing. Two sleeps were eventually considered a wasteful way to spend these hours.
The science seems to back up our history books. In a 4-week study with 15 men living with restricted daylight hours, something strange started to happen. After catching up on their “sleep debt” – a common state of affairs for most of us – the participants began to wake up in the middle of the night:
They began to have two sleeps.
Over a twelve hour period, the participants would typically sleep for about four or five hours initially, then wake for several hours, then sleep again until morning. They slept not more than eight hours total.
The middle hours of the night, between two sleeps, was characterized by unusual calmness, likened to meditation. This was not the middle-of-the-night toss-and-turn that many of us experienced. The individuals did not stress about falling back asleep, but used the time to relax.
Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford, points out that even with standard sleep patterns, this night waking isn’t always cause for concern. “Many people wake up at night and panic,” he says. “I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.”
Although the article mentions there are no benefits for sleeping twice a night, it’s difficult to imagine there wouldn’t be some major effects on our daily consciousness. How much would we benefit from a few hours of “unusual calmness, likened to meditation”? Seriously. I haven’t tried “bi-modal” sleep, but I think many of us, including myself, have stumbled into it. Our maddeningly busy digital schedules prevent us from considering the possibility, and benefits, of interloping with the sidereal realms of consciousness for more than an 8-hour “sleep debt” crash.
But we can’t go back to a pre-electric lifestyle of early-to-bed, early-to-rise. Yet, maybe we can we utilize this knowledge to enhance our quality of life, and open us up to alternative modes of mind and time.
This leads me to a book I’ve been reading through lately.
Swallowing the Information Age in a Single Gulp
If you’re interested in reading more on the modern world’s impact on our mind, look no further than Douglas Rushkoff’s new book: Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now:
“The point is that time is not neutral. Hours and minutes are not generic, but specific. We are better at doing some thing sin the morning and others in the evening. More incredible, those times of day change based on where we are in the twenty-eight day moon cycle. In one week, we are more productive in the early morning, while in the next week we are more effective in the early afternoon.
Technology gives us the ability to ride roughshod over all these nooks and crannies of time. We can fly through ten time zones in as many hours. We can take melatonin or Ambien to fall asleep when we’ve arrived at our destination, and later take one of our attention deficit disorder-afflicted son’s Ritalin pills to wake up the next morning…
Where our technologies may be evolving as fast as we can imagine new ones, our bodies evolved over millennia, and in concert with forces and phenomena we barely understand. It’s not simply that we need to give the body rhythms… the body is based on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different clocks, all listening to and relating to and syncing with everyone and everything elses. Human beings just can’t evolve that quickly. Our bodies are changing on a much different timescale.”
What Rushkoff suggests, however, is not to toss aside our iPhones and “always-on” digital lifestyles, but to figure out a way for our technology to enhance our biology:
“Yes, we are in a chronobiological crisis of depression, suicides, cancers, poor productivity, and social malaise as a result of abusing and defeating the rhythms keeping us alive and in sync with nature and one another. But what we are learning gives us the ability to turn this crisis into an opportunity. Instead of attempting to retrain the body to match the artificial rhythms of our digital technologies and their artifacts, we can instead use our digital technologies to reschedule our lives in a manner consistent with our physiology.”
I’m not sure I’ll be adopting a ‘bi-modal’ sleep, but I can definitely see the benefits of recognizing, and attempting to live by, a new understanding of time. Time as quality. Duration. Flavor. One of my favorite 20th century cultural philosophers, Jean Gebser, wrote in 1949 that time was at the heart of Western civilization’s crisis. In our attempt to be “in the new,” we try to be tapped into everything happening, at once. But maybe that’s the wrong approach. The wrong attitude about time. It’s not important to quantify time like we do. Maybe what’s needed is to step back and be present, not like the “present shock” Rushkoff is critiquing the digital age for, but in presence. In swallowing the information age in a single gulp.
It could be that our contemporary crisis with being in the now is no different than the Zen koan of “swallowing the ocean in a single gulp.” You can’t do it if you literalize time into little bits, tiny ticks of the clock, emails, Facebook notifications and bleeps on the LCD screen. It’s just far too much. But our information overload may, in reality, be a limitation not of the digital age but of the mode of quantifying consciousness we bring to it. What do you think? How do we deal with the “Flood” as James Gleick calls it?