Rethinking a Good Night’s Sleep

Eight hours  uninterrupted or segmented? – hmmzzz.

an article at Slashdot brought to my attention research that points to interrupted sleep, particularly in two segments, as the way in which we used to sleep. Interesting. I have read enough to know the importance of REM sleep to good health, but that doesn’t necessarily exclude sleep in two segments.

Book Notes on Chronobiology, Circadian Rhythm and Sleep:

from The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep

[historian Roger] Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society.

By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness.

A few of Ekirch’s references include:

  • “He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first 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.” Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1840)
  • “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.” Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote (1615)
  • “And at the wakening of your first sleepe You shall have a hott drinke made, And at the wakening of your next sleepe Your sorrowes will have a slake.” Early English ballad, Old Robin of Portingale
  • The Tiv tribe in Nigeria employ the terms “first sleep” and “second sleep” to refer to specific periods of the night

“People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th Century,” says Roger Ekirch. “But the industrial revolution intensified that attitude by leaps and bounds.”

Strong evidence of this shifting attitude is contained in a medical journal from 1829 which urged parents to force their children out of a pattern of first and second sleep.

I haven’t read Ekirch’s book, however, the commentary bears reading. If we are better suited to two segments of sleep, then best to change our behaviour, see what benefits, if any it holds, and schedule our nights to accomodate this new (or renewed) pattern.

Here’s Ekirch’s article in the NYT, Dreams Deferred.

298 Days to Dec 21st 2012


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