So there you lay, awake, after only three or four hours of sleep. You worry, you toss and turn, finally you go back to sleep, but you know something is wrong with you. Is it?
Although some people are never really bothered by irregular sleep patterns, others worry that, if they wake up during the night, they will not get enough sleep and will not be able to function well the next day. Some blame the barking dog, others blame a partner's snoring as the reason for their wakefulness.
How people used to sleep
Sleep patterns of yore are not really a part of recorded scientific information. No one records what seems obvious. Information about these patterns has to be gleaned from literature. Much of that information was collected in the book "At Day's Close, Night in Times Past," by A. Roger Ekrich.
Ekrich suggests that, in pre-industrial times, people went to bed when it was dark outside. During the winter, this would be quite early in the evening. People would fall asleep and stay asleep for 3-5 hours, which was referred to as the "first sleep." Then they would wake up, and would either lay in bed and think, or would get up and talk quietly with others in the household.
This was followed by the "second sleep," which lasted another three to five hours. A medical book of the time recommended that one should "lie on their right side during the first sleep and after the first sleep turned on the left side."
Thomas Jefferson planned his time well, and would read philosophy before going to bed "whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep." In other words, he planned to think about what he had read, during the interval between "first sleep" and "second sleep."
Sleep after the Industrial Revolution
Beginning in the mid-1700s, people began to stay up later and enjoy the night-time. They were inspired by stars and comets, instead of fearing them. They decreased their belief in magic and superstition. This interest in the night was partially brought about by safer night lighting. Candles, used previously, tended to burn houses down. Oil lamps, and later, gas lights, decreased this problem.
Interestingly, the nocturnal life provided a venue for increased crime, requiring more street lighting, and the creation of police forces. It also caused a change in people's behavior, because they could be seen by others both on the street and in their houses. Public urination at night became truly public.
Along with staying up later and going to bed later, people slept fewer hours. Thus with the Industrial Revolution, people forgot about first and second sleep, and began to believe that they should sleep continuously throughout the night.
Have our sleep patterns really changed?
While many would like to believe that everyone now sleeps through the night, we would venture the opinion that most people, in fact, sleep in two segments.
Sometimes, if we get to bed too late, we only have "first sleep," lasting three to five hours, before the alarm goes off. Often, however, we wake up after three to five hours, are awake for a time, and then sleep again. We might call this "segmented sleep."
Current thought about sleep labels such segmented sleep "a problem."Advertising suggests that we should not awaken during the night, and if we do, we must worry about it.
This is very similar to a very successful historic advertising campaign started by Listerine, that created the "disease of chronic halitosis"(to be solved by purchasing their mouthwash).
Let's accept segmented sleep
If we accept segmented sleep as natural, we will sleep better, and we will be able to use the time that we are awake to read a book or think, and then happily fall asleep for a few more hours, just like people did before 1700.
Let's take the advice of Montaigne, a French philosopher living before 1600, who said "Follow the order of nature, for God's sake! Follow it! It will lead who follows; and those who will not, it will drag along anyway."
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