How our ancestors used to sleep can help the sleep-deprived today

But while researching nocturnal life in preindustrial Europe and America, he discovered the first evidence that many humans used to sleep in segments — a first sleep and second sleep with a break of a few hours in between to have sex, pray, eat, chat and take medicine.

“Here was a pattern of sleep unknown to the modern world,” said Ekirch, a university distinguished professor in the department of history at Virginia Tech.

The practice of sleeping through the whole night didn’t really take hold until just a few hundred years ago, his work suggested. It only evolved thanks to the spread of electric lighting and the Industrial Revolution, with its capitalist belief that sleep was a waste of time that could be better spent working.

The history of sleep not only reveals fascinating details about everyday life in the past, but the work of Ekirch, and other historians and anthropologists, is helping sleep scientists gain fresh perspective on what constitutes a good night’s sleep. It also offers new ways to cope with and think about sleep problems.

There is value in knowing about this prior pattern of sleep in the Western world. “A large number of people who today suffer from middle-of-the-night insomnia, the primary sleep disorder in the United States — and I dare say in most industrialized countries — rather than experiencing a quote unquote, disorder, are in fact, experiencing a very powerful remnant, or echo of this earlier pattern of sleep,” Ekirch said.

A panel from a medieval stained glass church window depicts a married couple sleeping.

Myth of 8-hour sleep?

The first reference to biphasic sleep Ekirch found was in a 1697 legal document from a traveling “Assizes” court buried in a London record office. The deposition of a 9-year-old girl called Jane Rowth mentioned that her mother awoke after her “first sleep” to go out. The mother was later found dead.

“I had never heard the expression, and it was expressed in such a way that it seemed perfectly normal,” he said. “I then began to come across subsequent references in these legal depositions but also in other sources.”

These are notes made by historian A. Roger Ekirch when he came across the first reference to segmented sleep in a London archive office.

Ekirch subsequently found multiple references to a “first” and “second” sleep in diaries, medical texts, works of literature and prayer books. A doctor’s manual from 16th century France advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day but “after the first sleep,” when “they have more enjoyment” and “do it better.”

By the early 19th century, however, the first sleep had begun to expand at the expense of the second sleep, Ekirch found, and the intervening period of wakefulness. By the end of the century, the second sleep was little more than turning over in one’s bed for an extra 10 minutes of snoozing.

Ben Reiss, author of “Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World” and professor and chair of the English department at Emory University in Atlanta, blames the Industrial Revolution and the “sleep is for wimps” attitude it engendered.

“The answer is really to follow the money. Changes in economic organization, when it became more efficient to routinize work and have large numbers of people showing up on factory floors, at the same time and doing as much work in as concentrated fashion as possible,” Reiss said.

Our sleep…

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