BY: DANIEL KORN
I’m the kind of guy who wants a full, eight-hour sleep every night. It’s the only option for me to operate normally—in fact, I got only seven last night, and now it’s 4 PM and I’ve been staring at a computer all day and my eyes feel like they’re burning every time I blink. This is partly why I’ve never been the kind to go to clubs, nor been much of a partier—at a certain point, I just get tired, and only a comfy bed will solve the problem. This makes me a rarity among just about every other part-time employed twenty-something I know, and especially in relation to other writers, who have a tendency for insane sleep schedules because…I don’t know. Something about inspiration.
Anyways, it turns out that the joke is on me, because the strongly recommended 8-hour sleep might actually have been a crock this whole time.
Roger Ekrich, a historian at Virginia Tech, published a paper in 2001 based on 16 years of researching sleep patterns throughout history. In diaries, classic literature, and doctors’ manuals, Ekrich found over 500 examples of references, not to a single unbroken chunk of sleep, but to a “bimodal” pattern—two four-hour sleep sessions with a two-hour waking period in-between.
Trouble sleeping? Try switching your schedule to two four-hour sleep sessions instead with a two-hour waking period in-between.
People would do various things during this waking period. Some would get up, smoke tobacco, maybe visit some neighbours who were awake at the same time—in the days before artificial illumination, everyone was on the same basic sleep schedule. Most would stay in bed, read, reflect on their dreams, pray, or—if they had the means—have sex.
Before the 17th century, the streets at nighttime were dangerous places—it was the time for drunks and criminals. But in 1667, Paris became the first city to light its streets, and by the end of the century over 50 European cities followed. Thus was the birth of “nightlife”, and spending the night in bed became ever so passé.
Ekrich believes that the conflict between our natural sleep cycle and the 8-hour sleep might be the root of sleep disorders like sleep maintenance insomnia, where a person wakes up in the middle of the night and is unable to fall back asleep. The problem is that people who wake up in the middle of the night get stressed out that they’re not following a “proper” sleep schedule, get anxious about it, and end up staying up all night because of it. Meanwhile, sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs believes that the period of relaxation between sleeps played an important role in regulating stress, and that the lack of this period is the reason for the several stress disorders that plague so many people today.
So the next time you awaken in the darkness of night after only a few hours of sleep, don’t worry, you don’t have a sleeping disorder—that’s just your body’s way of giving the finger to the modern sleep cycle.