Friday, March 02, 2012

Mom Was Right About Naps

The myth of the eight-hour sleep

"In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

Though sleep scientists were impressed by the study, among the general public the idea that we must sleep for eight consecutive hours persists.

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.

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.

And these hours weren't entirely solitary - people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.

A doctor's manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better".

Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society.

By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness."


I read about this somewhere a long time ago, and boy do I resonate. All my life my body screamed for two sleep periods instead of one long slumber. I even took work on swing shifts where I'd get off in the early morning and go to bed for four or five hours, get up and do things during the day, then lay down for another couple of hours, looking at the inside of my eyelids before work. I've been able to nap all my life. To me it's natural for humans to do this.

Think of siestas in equatorial regions. There's also a tradition in northern climates for a second sleep. Nights are so mercilessly long during winter months that there's always been a convention of breaking them up into two bed sessions with socializing in between.

This eight hour one-size-fits-all bullshit just so happened to coincide with the industrial revolution when workers needed to be toiling all day and only sleep for one long period at night. I think about it like eating meals - it's far better for your health to eat sparse many times a day instead of having a bulging belly when you waddle away from the table. It's no wonder massive numbers of students doze off in school, workers are unproductive and poisonous energy drinks are peddled so ubiquitously.

Segmented Sleep: Ten Strange Things People Do at Night


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