Wednesday, July 7, 2010

First Sleep, Second Sleep: Our Natural Sleep Pattern

Many people think waking up in the middle of the night is insomnia and take sleeping pills in order to sleep through the night. History tells us, though, that broken sleep is natural sleep.
Sleep in times past
In the course of gathering information for his book about night in preindustrial times (At Day's Close: Night in Times Past), A. Roger Ekirch, professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, uncovered the fact that before artificial illumination was widely used, people typically slept in 2 bouts, which they called first sleep and second sleep.1 In those times, sleep was more closely tied to sunset and sunrise than it is now. Within an hour or so after sunset, people retired to bed, slept for about 4 hours, and then woke up. They remained awake for a couple of hours and then returned to sleep at about 2 am for another 4 hours or so.

Written records from before the first century onward indicate that the period between first and second sleep afforded a chance for quiet contemplation, but people also got out of bed during this interval and did household chores or visited with family and friends. Although diaries, court documents, and literature of the time indicate that this sleep pattern was widely known and acknowledged, until Ekirch's work this bit of history had been lost to the current era. This pattern of sleep is no longer the norm in developed countries, where artificial light extends the day, but anthropologists have observed a similar pattern of segmented sleep in some contemporary African tribes.1 Ekirch notes that the Tiv people of central Nigeria even use the same terms—first sleep and second sleep—used by the Europeans of times past. Read more

No comments: