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Article Jan-Saenredam-Nocte-Vacant

Published on August 5th, 2013 | by Dan Walsh

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Why We Sleep How We Sleep

Sleep is such a natural part of our life that it’s easily taken for granted. The status quo in the western world is to sleep eight solid hours per night. This is such a common part of life that few of us would stop to ask “why”. I really liked The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep, by Stephanie Hegarty because it explained the origin of our current sleeping habits, which were born of social pressures instead of based on our human physiology.

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.

Until around the 17th century, most people would go to sleep for four hours starting at dusk, wake up for an hour or two, and then go back to sleep for another four hours.

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

This pattern only diminished when artificial light became cheap enough for most people to stay out later.

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… He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses – which were sometimes open all night. As the night became a place for legitimate activity and as that activity increased, the length of time people could dedicate to rest dwindled.

I find the history fascinating, but this article actually helped me sleep better. How? By giving me permission to be wide awake in the middle of the night. No need to stress or think I’m suffering from insomnia. It’s just the natural way we used to sleep.

So the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, think of your pre-industrial ancestors and relax. Lying awake could be good for you.

Read: The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep, by Stephanie Hegarty

Image: The British Museum

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