Sleeping for an uninterrupted eight hours a night is not, in fact, natural human behavior.
Recently, writer Jesse Barron described in the New York Times how he accidentally fell into a pattern of “segmented sleep,” a routine that was standard for centuries until the late 19th century. The practice—which typically involved going to bed at around 9pm to 10pm, sleeping for 3 to 3.5 hours, waking for an hour or so around midnight, and then returning for a second sleep of the same length until around dawn—fell out of fashion with the invention of artificial light, permanently changing our relationship to the natural environment.
In 1992, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr showed that when people lived in darkness for 14 hours a day for a month, they settled into a routine of segmented sleep. And in 2001, history professor Roger Ekirch, from Virginia Tech University, showed that such a pattern was the norm for many generations. He pointed to legal and medical documents that referred to a first and second sleep, and similar mentions throughout literature, including Homer, Chaucer, Austen, Dickens, and Tolstoy.
“Practically every great author” mentioned the practice, says Ekirch in an interview, and in every language in Europe.
But though we may feel perfectly happy with our modern consolidated sleep, we’ve now lost that midnight hour between sleeps, a time when we can be awake and alone with our thoughts.
“I think we’re missing out on a time of intimacy and privacy, a time of self-reflection,” says Ekirch. “We’ve lost a traditional avenue to our dreams, our subconscious.”
This time, which those in earlier centuries called “the watch,” was once used for all manner of activities. There were prayers specifically designed for the watch, and as several religious faiths saw it as a “sacred hour best suited for communicating with God,” says Ekirch. It was also a chance to reflect on vivid dreams and meditate in bed.
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