We’ve been hearing all our lives that we have to sleep eight hours to properly rest and be energized throughout the day. And although life can be too hectic, a lot of people actually make the effort to fill all those sleep hours. Some others claim that they can’t go to bed too early and are content with sleeping six or four hours only. Let’s face it, most of us think that’s just nonsensical! However, there might be a reason why there are so many people that go to bed that late, and that might respond to our primal sleeping habits.
As you can get from the title, there was once a happy time when people actually slept two times a day, that is two cycles of four hours each approximately. Why? Let’s see about that.
History of Biphasic Sleep
One good day while researching Medieval social habits, historian Roger Ekirch came up with a simple phrase that took him by surprise. It was a 17th-century declaration of a woman who had reported the disappearance of her mother, she explained, some men had taken her after the first sleep. As Ekirch explained, having a first sleep suggested the existence of a second, so he devoted his study to find out about what he coined as ‘biphasic sleep.’
To his surprise, this sleeping habit was mentioned in all sorts of documents, from letters, diaries, medical journals, theater plays, newspapers, basically everywhere. He also discovered, that biphasic sleep didn’t only happen in England as he had first approached, but he also found evidence all over Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas. The fact that this was a global habit suggested that human beings were naturally used to this sleeping scheme and that eight-hour sleep is more of a social modern construct than a medieval fun fact.
Ekirch found evidence of biphasic sleep as far as the 8th century BC, in the famous Greek poem The Odyssey. It was clear that ancient Greeks and Romans based their sleep habits on biphasic sleep and that they had probably inherited it from prehistoric human beings just as they later passed the habit on to Medieval folk. For the latter, especially the Christians all over Europe, the hours between the two sleep cycles became essential for praying, making the practice stick for centuries ahead.
Medieval Sleeping Habits
Sleeping habits during Medieval times were completely different from what we’ve seen in most movies and from what we practice. To start with, for most people (that is commoners) sleeping was a communal activity. People would often sleep accompanied by all their family or even servants in more wealthy circles. With that being said, it’s easy to imagine why it was so common to just sleep in blocks for fewer hours.
This is how it happened. As night approached and after a day of extenuating work, people took their first sleep around nine pm. After four good hours of sleep, they would wake up around one to carry out some more activities. Naturally, the exact time of sleeping and awakening was relative since there were no alarm clocks; it just happened naturally. To the period right after the first sleep, people gave the name of ‘the watch.’
The watch was the perfect time to carry out some activities. For religious people that meant praying, since it was known to be the most profitable hour. In times of the Reformation, for instance, the watch became the perfect time for Protestants to carry out their secret services without being noticed. Aside from religious activities, for common people the watch was the perfect moment to carry out common tasks like adding more wood to the fire, going to take a leak (there were no indoor bathrooms, feeding their farm animals, doing some household work, mending some clothes, and so on.
According to Ekirch, people also found this gap in the day for socializing and carrying out more intimate activities, if you know what I mean. As a matter of fact, doctors recommended having intercourse during the watch to conceive, since both would be more relaxed after a good rest encouraging the conception. But this time was also used by families to connect and simply talk about basically anything without the pressure of work.
After some good couple hours of well-spent time, people would go back to sleep until dawn or a bit later. This second sleep shift was simply known as morning sleep.
Benefits of Biphasic Sleep
Now, just as biphasic sleep might’ve been a primal habit of humans, it’s also a pattern found in the animal world with many species resorting to dividing their sleeping time into separate shifts. It has been found in several species with primates being our closest link. And it has some logic. Many animals sleep in short spams of time throughout the day because it allows them to remain active during the most beneficial moments of the day. That is, during the best times to find food and even being awake to protect themselves from predators.
When it comes to humans Ekirch teamed with sleep specialists, and on the matter, David Samson, director of the sleep and human evolution laboratory (from the University of Toronto Mississagua, in Canada) explained that research has found that naturally, there’s a moment during the night, between 1:00 and 1:30 in the morning, the brain found it naturally to wake only to go back to profound sleep a couple of hours later and waking up again approximately whit the rising of the sun.
For Ekirch, biphasic sleep could be the answer to modern humanity’s sleeping issues. As a matter of fact, he points out that what is known as sleep maintenance insomnia would only be the body responding to primal biphasic sleep. The question here is, why did we stop sleeping twice a day.
Why Have Humans Stopped Sleeping Twice a Day?
It’s been recorded that humanity stopped the biphasic around the early 19th century and it coincides with the wake of the Industrial Revolution when life became more hectic, but more importantly when the appearance of technologies to maintain artificial light became more available.
Gas lamps didn’t only expand the active hours of the day on a personal scale, but they also made it available to expand public life on the streets. By the end of the century, many cities would have access to electricity, this, according to Ekirch, “in addition to altering people’s circadian rhythms, artificial illumination also naturally allowed people to stay up later.” Being at bed by 9 simply meant not taking the most of the day, and waking in the middle of the night stopped being useful and profitable for modernity’s standards.
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