Our Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Through the Night: Should We?

Half our lives happen at night and, yet, historians have focused almost exclusively on what happened during the day. Roger Ekrich is an exception. In his research on the history of sleep, he’s found documentation that shows that the idea of sleeping through the night may be a modern invention.

His research reveals that the night has always had a distinct culture. He explores the evolution of “fear of crime, of fire, and of the supernatural.” He looks at the “importance of moonlight, the increased incidence of sickness and death at night, evening gatherings to spin wool and stories, masqued balls, inns, taverns, and brothels.” He uncovers the strategies of thieves, assassins, and conspirators,” and “the protective uses of incantations, meditations, and prayers.”

He also describes what he calls “segmented sleep.” Ekrich argues that segmented sleep may have been the norm. Ekrich’s argument is based on historical references to two period of sleep each night: the first called “first sleep” or “dead sleep” and the second called “second sleep” or “morning sleep.”

sleepyThese references describe the first sleep as beginning roughly two hours after dusk, continuing for three or four before waking for an hour or two, and then sleeping again for a few hours until morning. The pattern seems to be tied to the presence of artificial light. In the historical documents of wealthier households where such light may have been available – where people could stay up later, for example, to play cards by lamplight – there are fewer references to such broken sleep.

The idea that this broken sleep pattern may be normal is born out by such studies as Wehr (2009) in which a group of people kept in the dark for 14 hours a day for a month settled into a sleep pattern “divided into two symmetrical bouts, several hours in duration, with a 1–3 h waking interval between them.”

The perception of what is normal in sleep is important. Many patients seek a doctor’s help when they feel they are not sleeping normally. Even children may be affected. According to a 10-year NIH study, approximately 18.6 million doctor visits occurred for sleep-related difficulties in children. Eighty-one percent of those visits resulted in a prescription for sleep medication.

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