An article that got passed along on Twitter this weekend is a BBC feature on the sleeping patterns of days gone by. The upshot is people used to sleep for four hours, putter around, them sleep for another four.
In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.
His book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.Roger Ekirch says this 1595 engraving by Jan Saenredam is evidence of activity at night
Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second 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.
During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps. …
“For most of evolution we slept a certain way,” says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs. “Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology.”
The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block could be damaging, he says, if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, as this anxiety can itself prohibit sleeps and is likely to seep into waking life too.
This is interesting to me as I quite often wake up in the middle of the night. But little did I suspect that might just be what some of us are engineered to do.
The article includes a backgrounder on sleep and explains the sleep cycle. There is a link to a questionnaire that helps determine your sleep profile. And if you want to learn a bit more about sleep deprivation, there’s a link for that too.