Can’t Sleep? Thank Your Ancestors

Since as long as I can remember, it has been nothing short of common knowledge that a key to a great night sleep (and the day that follows) would be to get sleep—and lots of it.  Eight hours was the recommended dosage to a perfect night’s sleep.  Eight hours, one-third of the day’s hours was a sure fire way to make sure there was only one side of the bed to wake up on, the good side. 

Now, however, a recent article referencing a book on the subject of sleep is turning the notion of the all-important eight-hour-a-night sleep on its head.  In his book, At Day’s Close: Night in the Times Past (published in 2001), Roger Ekrich pulls from hundreds of references in order to effectively trace sleeping patterns, looking at literature, court cases, medical records, and folklore.  Ekrich, a professor at Virginia Tech, and an historian with 16 years of experience looking into the subject, suggests that in the past sleeping patterns were split in two.

According to Ekrich, a consistent theme of restless sleep echoed throughout the works he rummaged through; restless in the sense that it was marked by a definitive split in which individuals wakened for a period of time after falling to sleep (first sleep) and dozing off for a second time (second sleep).  What each person did during this time was entirely up to each individual: some smoked, prayed, or meditated, while others visited neighbors or participated in sexual acts.  Like a reverse siesta for the nighttime, this break in sleep was dictated by a multitude of possibilities.

As evidenced by Ekrich, this bi-modal sleep habit was not without its plentitude of resources.  Don Quixote author Miguel Cervantes illustrates it in his masterpiece: “Don Quixote followed nature, and being satisfied with his first sleep, did not solicit more.  As for Sancho, he never wanted a second, for the first lasted him from night to morning.”  Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, too, partook in a double night’s sleep as the author could attest, “He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream.”

Knowing about sleeping patterns of the past has plenty up upsides according to Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscience professor at Oxford University.  “Many people wake up at night and panic.  I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern,” explained Foster.  As time progressed, we began immersing ourselves deeply into the night—and, with that, into the light.  Streetlights and lamps fueled a nightlife never before seen, with daytime revelry quickly trickling into the evening hours.  It is no wonder, then, that sleep patterns changed as did people’s social lives. 

Furthermore, the time spent in-between slumbers—when one could rest and contemplate the dreams and thoughts just previously experienced—has been, for the most part, completely wiped out.  It is this knowledge of past habits that could grant a better understanding of why we are the way that we are.  No longer do we take the time to sit and think of our nighttime wanderings, but perhaps if we paid them some notice when we are tossing and turning, we might get a better idea.

So on those late nights/early mornings, when the unrest is almost unbearable, take a deep breath and just remember that this is was the nighttime of our ancestors.  


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