Before the Industrial Revolution, which gave us strict work shifts powered by artificial light, it’s believed that the average person slept biphasically — that is, in several chunks in any given 24-hour period. Investigating this, sleep scholar and Virginia Tech historian Roger Ekirch wrote At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. This morning, the Huffington Post published a Q&A between its namesake editor-in-chief, Arianna Huffington, and Ekirch.
Through the 1800s, Ekirch explained, people broke up their slumber with three hours of wakefulness, customarily between midnight and 3 a.m. During this time, we took care of quotidian tasks like brewing ale and pilfering orchards. Nurses tended to the sick. Laborers labored. Thieves went thieving. (Wealthy people, of course, hung out in bed, pondering their dreams.) Some people had sex. Lots of people peed.
With the Industrial Revolution, Western societies became more time-conscious and obsessed with productivity. As a result, our views on sleep changed. We increasingly viewed shut-eye as a “necessary evil best confined to a single interval,” in Ekirch’s words.
Additionally, we had the luxury of no longer sitting in dim and dark homes once the sun went down. Two centuries later, artificial light is still fucking with our sleep-and-wake cycles. As Ekirch told Huffington, “Then, too, the dissemination of artificial lighting led to later bedtimes and sleep that was deeper, more compressed, and capable of being taken in a single interval. By the early twentieth century, if not earlier, most people exhibited an unquestioning adherence to seamless slumber.”
Today, the most common form of insomnia is middle-of-the-night insomnia (MOTN). Those afflicted can doze off, but they can’t sleep through the night.
This wasn’t a recognized issue until people began to embrace monophasic sleep. Previously, waking up in the middle of the night wasn’t a cause for concern; it was simply the norm. But once an eight-hour block of rest became the goal, MOTN’ers who couldn’t rise to the occasion had a problem, and eventually a recognized disorder.
But what if MOTN insomniacs are really biphasic sleepers poorly conforming to a monophasic schedule, like left-handed students forcibly masquerading as righties?
Ekirch: “Many patients, I have been told, regard themselves as abnormal, which only heightens their anxiety, thereby accentuating their inability to sleep. But there is strong historical evidence that many insomniacs may, in fact, be experiencing this older, more natural pattern of segmented slumber.”
Still, modernity has made sleep better and easier in many ways, Ekirch says. For starters, “We should delight in the fact that for most of us, the opportunity to enjoy deep, restful sleep has never been better, thanks to improvements in home construction, heating, and medical care, not least aspirin and other modern analgesics.”
Additionally, thanks to modern medicine, diseases like bilious fever and Scarlatina aren’t interrupting our rest.
In the pre-industrial revolution era, impediments to sleep were external, i.e., not our fault. Today, Ekirch says, we should probably blame ourselves for sleep deprivation becoming an epidemic.
“By burning the candle at both ends -- rising early for work after retiring around midnight, if not later -- we have come to expect six or seven hours of undisturbed rest. Ironically, the less time allowed for sleep, the more we have come to demand of it, hoping that expensive bedding and sleeping pills will compensate for our high wattage lifestyle. And then to cope with our exhaustion during the day, we look, often in vain, to such popular expedients as power naps and caffeinated beverages -- not just coffee but high energy drinks.”
Ekirch isn’t advising a wide-scale adoption of polyphasic sleep patterns. But, maybe, for some bad sleepers, there are lessons to be learned from our pre-Industrial ancestors.