Eight hours of sleep is a modern innovation.
Imagine you are living in the 18th century. At 8:30 pm, you put on your nightcap, blow out the candles, and fall asleep to the smell of wax and cinder softly filling the air around the bed. Sleep for a few hours. At 2:30 am you wake up, put on your coat and go to visit your neighbors. They don’t sleep either. Reading, praying, or having sex calmly. Because before the era of electricity, sleeping twice a night was ubiquitous.
In those days, people slept twice a night, got up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night, and then went back to bed until dawn.
The existence of sleeping twice a night was first identified by Roger Ekirch, a history professor at the University of Virginia.
His research found that we did not always practice eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. It was more common for humans to sleep in two short periods over a longer range of night, which spanned about 12 hours. It was divided into intervals: first three to four hours of sleep, then two to three hours of being awake, and again sleeping until morning.
References to such a routine are found in literature, court documents, and personal records. It’s not even surprising that people slept in two shifts, but the incredible prevalence of this type of night rest. This was the standard, accepted way to sleep.
“The number and nature of the mentions indicate that it was common knowledge,” says Ekirch.
For example, an English physician wrote that the ideal time for study and reflection is the period between “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Chaucer Geoffrey, in The Canterbury Tales, wrote of a heroine who went to bed after her “first dream.” And, explaining the reason for having many children among the working class, a doctor in the 1500s notes that people usually had sex after their first sleep.
Roger Ekirch’s book At the End of the Day. The history of the night ”is replete with similar examples.
But what were people doing during those free night hours? Basically everything you could think of.
Most stayed in their bedrooms and beds, sometimes reading, often praying. Religious manuals even included specific prayers recommended for reading between two sleep periods.
Others smoked, talked to the person who shared a bed with them, or had sex. Some were very active, visiting neighbors.
As you know, this practice eventually became obsolete. Ekirch associates the change with the advent of electric lighting in rooms and on the streets, as well as the popularity of coffee shops. Writer Craig Koslofsky offers a further reflection on this topic in his book Evening’s Empire. With the proliferation of street lighting, night has ceased to be the property of criminals and subclasses of society. This period became a time for work or communication. The bimodal sleep pattern eventually began to be perceived as a waste of several hours of time.
Science maintains records in history books. The researchers conducted a four-week experiment in which 15 men took part, living in conditions with limited daylight. Something strange began to happen to them. Having caught up with a lack of sleep – a common thing for most of us – the participants began to wake up in the middle of the night:
They had two periods of sleep.
For twelve hours, participants typically first slept for about four to five hours, then woke up and stayed awake for several hours, then slept again until morning. In general, they slept no more than eight hours.
The period in the middle of the night between sleep segments was characterized by an extraordinary calmness, similar to a meditative state. It was not like the tossing and turning in bed that many of us have experienced. The participants in the experiment did not strain or worry about awakening, they relaxed at this time.
Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford, notes that even with standard sleep patterns, waking up in the middle of the night is not a cause for concern. “Many people wake up at night and panic. I explain to them that this is how they return to bimodal sleep patterns, ”says the professor.
Although the article notes that there is no benefit to sleeping twice a night, it’s hard for me to imagine that this sleep pattern would not have serious consequences for our daily consciousness. How much benefit could we derive from a few hours of “extraordinary tranquility similar to meditation”? Indeed. I have not used bimodal sleep, but I think many of us, myself included, have experienced it. With an insanely busy schedule, we do not even consider the possibilities and benefits of another state of consciousness other than eight hours of sleep, the need for which is caused by fatigue.
Of course, we cannot go back to the pre-electrification lifestyle with an early bedtime and early waking up. But maybe we could apply this knowledge to improve the quality of life and discover alternative modes of mind and time.
This brings me back to the book I have been reading lately.
Swallowing the information age in one breath
If you’re interested in reading more about the modern world and how it affects our minds, check out Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.
“The point is that time is not neutral. Hours and minutes are not universal, but definite. Some things are easier for us in the morning, while others – in the evenings. Moreover, the time of day changes based on the current moment in the twenty-eight-day lunar cycle. We are more productive in the early morning for one week and in the afternoon the next week.
Technology gives us the ability to ignore all these nooks and crannies of time. We can fly across ten time zones. Take a sleeping pill to fall asleep when we reach our travel destination, take an attention deficit medication later to wake up the next morning …
Our technologies can evolve as fast as we invent them. But our bodies have evolved over the millennia, interacting with forces and phenomena that we are barely aware of. We don’t just have to take into account the rhythms of the body … the body relies on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different clocks, listening, communicating, and synchronizing with many things. Human beings are not capable of such rapid development. Our bodies are changing on a completely different timeline. “
But Rushkoff is not calling for ditching their iPhones and ditching digital lifestyles. He is in favor of figuring out ways of facilitating technology to activate our biology:
“Yes, we are in a chronobiological crisis with depression, suicide, cancer, low productivity, and social discomfort as a result of maliciously disrupting the rhythms that keep us alive and in sync with nature and with each other. But the fact that we are learning gives us the opportunity to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Instead of trying to retrain the body and bring it in line with the artificial rhythms of our digital technologies, we can apply technology and combine our lifestyle with our own physiology. “
I’m not sure if I will stick to the bimodal sleep model, but I definitely see the benefits of a new understanding of time and trying to live according to it. Time as quality. Duration. Aroma. One of my favorite 20th-century philosophers, Jean Gebser, wrote in 1949 that time is at the root of the crisis in Western civilization. In our quest to keep up with trends, we get involved in everything that happens at the same time. Perhaps this is the wrong approach. Wrong attitude to time. Maybe we need to take a step back and be present; not be “shaken” in the digital age that Rushkoff criticizes, but be present.
Our current crisis of being “in the present” is no different from the Zen koan about drinking the ocean in one gulp. You can’t do that if you break up the time into small chunks: tiny ticks on the clock, on emails, Facebook notifications, and messages beeping on the LCD screen. Too much of everything. But the problem of our information overload may actually not be in the digital age but in the mode of measuring consciousness, which we turn on. What do you think? And what will help us to cope with the “flow”?
Article by Jeremy Johnson