8. The Revivalist
Name: Roger Ekirch
Title: Historian at Virginia Tech University
Why they're interesting: Reintroduced the long-lost practice of "segmented sleep" to the modern world
Thanks to Roger Ekirch, the 1800s are all the rage — in terms of sleep, at least.
In a landmark paper published in 2001, Ekirch presented evidence that, until the Industrial Revolution, the Western world slept in two separate chunks rather than the single eight-hour stretch that's become the norm. Somehow, this historical tidbit had flown under the radar. Four years later, in 2005, Ekirch provided a more extensive account of the left-behind practice of "segmented sleep" in his book "At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past." Since then, pre-Industrial sleep, and the 19th-century transition to what we now call consolidated sleep, has been Ekirch’s primary focus as a historian.
Ekirch’s discovery has both advanced our sleep knowledge and helped people understand their own sleep quirks and struggles. Those with middle-of-the-night insomnia (who wake up after falling asleep and can’t get back to bed), for instance, may be able to draw on history to re-frame their atypical sleep habits as different rather than broken.
“Their sleep, from a historical perspective, may well be a persistent echo of this long dominant pattern of biphasic sleep in western societies dating back, at the least, to Homer’s 'Odyssey,'" said Ekirch, of middle-night insomniacs. “Sleep physicians have informed me that patients derive a measure of comfort from this knowledge, which, in some instances, enables them, after awakening, to fall asleep more readily by lessening their anxiety."
Despite recognizing marked progress in our cultural treatment of sleep (and helping upend sleep norms himself), Ekirch thinks we have more to learn about the sleep habits of our forebears. “In my view as a historian, the prevalence of segmented sleep in non-Western pre-Industrial communities has yet to be resolved satisfactorily.”