I found this report from the BBC about how it used to be common for people to sleep in two stages rather than a straight 8 hours of sleep fascinating because I find myself increasingly falling into exactly that pattern lately.
We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night – but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.
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…
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.
Over the last few weeks I have fallen into this pattern of waking up after 4 or 5 hours of sleep, feeling awake and refreshed, then getting up, having something to eat and doing 2-4 hours of very productive work, then going back to sleep for 2-3 hours. The problem is that it’s difficult to build a schedule around that. But the time in between the intervals of sleep are very productive, I get a lot of work done that way. In fact, I am writing this during one such interval.
Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.
This could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, he suggests.
The condition first appears in literature at the end of the 19th Century, at the same time as accounts of segmented sleep disappear.
“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.
Russell Foster, a professor of circadian [body clock] neuroscience at Oxford, shares this point of view.
“Many people wake up at night and panic,” he says. “I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.”
I wouldn’t call it anxiety, but it has been bothering me that I can’t get back to sleep after a few hours. Maybe I should just accept it.