A woman tending to her husband in the middle of the night by Jan Saenredam, 1595 I’m in bed at two in the morning, wide awake, staring into the darkness and considering the failure of my life.  I must be a failure, otherwise I’d be sound asleep.

The ideal of an uninterrupted eight hours of restful sleep is the unquestioned measure of success in today’s society.  Any deviation from this is a pathology that must be addressed.  Dale Carnegie, in his classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, gives advice on dealing with insomnia.

So, if I’m wide awake in the middle of the night there must be something wrong with me.  Right?

Not necessarily.

This article, published by the BBC, addresses what it calls the ‘myth’ of the eight hour sleep.  It summarizes the findings of historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech who uncovered ample evidence that we used to sleep in four hour chunks with one to two hours of wakefulness in between.  (This has been confirmed in isolation studies in which subjects were kept in isolation and allowed to establish sleep patterns independent of external queues.)

Ekirch’s findings are summarized in his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past.  Historical records in the 15th and 16th centuries talk openly and repeatedly of ‘First Sleep’ and ‘Second Sleep’.  It was common to get up between the two.  This time was used to eat, do chores and even visit with neighbors who were similarly between sleeps.  A doctor’s manual from 16th Century France “even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day’s labour but “after the first sleep”, when “they have more enjoyment” and “do it better”.”

Such references began to disappear in the 17th century and, of course, are totally absent now.  What happened?

Light.  Or, more specifically, artificial lighting at night, starting with candles and oil lamps for those who could afford them.  Eventually cities began lighting their streets with gas lamps and then electricity.  Going to bed early was considered unfashionable so people began shoe-horning their sleep into whatever time was left over.  But the natural sleep patterns still exist for many of us.

So when I find myself awake at night, I don’t worry about it.  I remind myself that I’m between sleeps, nothing more.  And I think about the advice from that doctor back in the 16th century.

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