I was talking to a pleasant woman recently who celebrated her 50th high school reunion just last year. She said she has trouble sleeping and rarely sleeps the night through. She typically wakes up after only a few hours, then tosses and turns for an hour or longer before falling back to sleep again. It’s a common complaint of people our age. I told her I had read an article once that claimed that sleeping in two intervals was the natural pattern for everyone before electric lighting transformed the night and upset our circadian rhythm.
I was able to find the original article in the May 30, 2005, issue of The New Yorker (I have a good filing system), and it was a review of a book, “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” by A. Roger Ekirch, a professor of Early American history at Virginia Tech.
The main theme of the book is how dark even large cities were before electric lighting, such as Dickens’ London, and the huge effect this had on daily life. Anyone brave enough to go out on a moonless night was risking robbery and physical harm from the roving gangs that found opportunity in the inky blackness. As a consequence, most honest citizens followed their internal circadian rhythm and went to bed early and slept in two intervals. This was so ordinary no one though it remarkable, just as we only remark on our single sleep pattern when it is disturbed.
Ekirch states, “until the close of the early modern era, Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of wakefulness.” He quotes references in early literature to a primo somno, or “first sleep,” and a second sleep, sometimes called “morning sleep.”
This seems to be the natural pattern for humans, and the single, shorter sleep we get in today’s unnatural world of artificial illumination is “an offense against nature.” In a modern study by the National Institute of Mental Health that recreated those earlier conditions, volunteers deprived of artificial light (and, I assume, radio and TV) first lay in bed awake for two hours, then slept for four, woke for two or three hours of quiet rest and reflection, and fell asleep again for another four hours. Anyone who has done primitive camping knows this pattern well. Anyone, too, who is a retired senior and has gotten bored with everything on TV by 9 PM.
So, the next time you are tossing and turning, embrace, not fight, your natural tendencies. Enjoy that time for reflection and planning. It’s what most of our ancestors did for most of recorded history, and, no doubt, even before that.