New evidence shows that prior to the widespread use of artificial electric lighting, folks went to sleep about two hours after sundown, slept until around midnight, and then woke up for an hour or two before going back to bed and then waking up in the morning with the sunrise. They effectively enjoyed a “first sleep” and a “second sleep.”
The weird thing is, since the invention and widespread use of artificial electric lighting, we’ve forgotten all about this divided sleep pattern. We’ve come to think that sleeping through the whole night is normal and natural.
Psychologists and historians now agree that it isn’t.
“For most of evolution we slept a certain way,” sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs told the BBC this week. “Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology.” Jacobs went on to note that waking periods between sleeps constituted times that folks were forced into restful and relaxing activities. He offers that this pattern of sleep / waking relaxation / sleep probably played a large role in helping people to regulate stress naturally.
In his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, historian Roger Ekirch explains that before the onset of electric street lamps, night was universally regarded as a dangerous time to be out and about. The darkness made the likelihood of calamity for those who chose to venture from their homes much more likely: getting lost, falling into ditches, accidentally starting fires and other mishaps were all common tragedies. Therefore, people awake between their first and second sleeps were likely to do quiet, relaxing things: lay in bed, pray, meditate on their dreams, talk or make love with their spouse, or write in a journal.
“Today we spend less time doing those things,” Dr Jacobs remarked. “It’s not a coincidence that, in modern life, the number of people who report anxiety, stress, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse has gone up.”
If you’re experiencing anxiety, stress or depression you might experiment with taking your sleep rhythms back to the two-period pattern. The busy pace of modern life has made it popular to devote less time to resting and more time to work and socializing, but surviving isn’t thriving, and our quick pace of life could be destroying our wellness.
Try limiting your use of electric light and appliances (including televisions and computers) after sundown. Experiment with going to bed right after dinner at about 8 pm, and set your alarm for midnight. At midnight, get up and journal, pray, or meditate by candle light. After two hours, put yourself back to bed and set your alarm for dawn. Wake up when the sun rises and go about your day. You’ll get about 8 total hours of sleep, and your body will sync with the same patterns that kept humans happy and healthy for thousands of years before electricity.