Sleep: Who Needs Eight Hours?

In Robert Harris’s thrilling new mystery The Second Sleep, the author transports us to a time when humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks. A fact that remains a surprise to many of us, in pre-industrial Europe, households retired to bed after dusk for a ‘first’ sleep. A few hours later, they rose for one or two hours’ nocturnal activity, then returned to bed for a ‘second’ sleep until dawn.

What on earth were they doing in that hiatus between the first and second sleep? A whole range of things is the answer. Moonlit pursuits ranged from sewing, smoking, praying, chopping wood, imbibing ‘a hott drinke’, reading, visiting neighbours and, of course, sex: indeed, a doctor’s manual published in sixteenth-century France recommended indulging in a spot of procreation ‘after the first sleep’ for the simple reason that then people derive more ‘enjoyment’ from it and thus ‘do it better.’

According to the world’s expert on this subject, historian Roger Ekirch *, the practice of phased sleep began fading out as recently as the late-seventeenth century. Once the upper classes began altering their pattern, it took about 200 years for the rest of Western society to fall into line. But not everyone was so eager to abandon this long-established custom. In Barnaby Rudge, written in 1840, Charles Dickens describes one of his characters waking from a nightmare during ‘his first sleep.’

Given that around a third of the population has trouble sleeping, perhaps segmented sleep should be reintroduced. Some sleep experts believe that sleep disorders are based on the body’s natural proclivity for split sleep. And science suggests they’re right; in the early 1990s, a month-long experiment was carried out by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr in which a group of people were kept in the dark for 14 hours every day. Although it took some time for their sleep to regulate, by the fourth week all of them had settled into a distinct sleeping pattern. After sleeping for four hours, they woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

Today, there are obviously those who, unbeknown to themselves, have resorted to the habit of their ancestors, waking up between a first and second sleep to indulge in a plethora of nocturnal occupations. Be it reading, writing, drawing, taking photographs, sending emails or texting. Two-phase sleep patterns allow for greater flexibility, providing two periods of activity, creativity and alertness across the day. Surely this would be preferable to having one protracted ‘awake’ period in which sleepiness builds across the day and causes productivity to wane?

• Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, 2005

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