Thursday, January 3, 2013

Can't #Sleep? Blame Your #Ancestors and Thomas Edison

Woman Sleeping
By: Timothy Krause

January 3

Sleep Festival

The hectic holiday season is over and life is getting back to routine for some families. This sounds like a wonderful day of the year to catch up on that missing rest. Wait, don't leave yet. You haven't finished this blog. 

But Allison, what could you possible tell me historically about sleep?

“Scientists have long argued over whether we need eight consecutive hours of sleep per night, and a look back through history seems to indicate that we may not. According to the BBC, Virginia Tech historian Roger Ekirch promotes the theory that humans have historically snoozed in two distinct chunks, broken up by an hour or two of alertness. Ekirch poured over 'diaries, court records, medical books and literature' to back up his belief in segmented sleep. Compelling evidence includes a 16th-century doctor's manual advising couples that the best time to conceive is 'after the first sleep. . . when they have more enjoyment [and] do it better.'"
-, February 22, 2012

Two Sleep Cycles?
1595 engraving by Jan Saenredam 
The idea of having two four hours periods of sleep with a two hour waking period in between is known as segmented sleep. Historian A. Roger Ekirch is an award winning author and history professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Ekirch spent fifteen years during the 80's and 90's researching historical sleep patterns from over 500 documents from the ancient, medieval, and modern world.

"The dominant pattern of sleep, arguably since time immemorial, was biphasic. Humans slept in two four-hour blocks, which were separated by a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night lasting an hour or more. During this time some might stay in bed, pray, think about their dreams, or talk with their spouses. Others might get up and do tasks or even visit neighbors before going back to sleep." Roger Ekrich explained to Life's Little Mysteries in 2005.

According to A Roger Ekirch, humans have practiced segmented sleep from the dawn of time. Segmented sleep had evolved from the long stretch of night hours. Darkness, especially, during the winter months, could be as long as fourteen hours.  In order to acclimate to the long hours of darkness, our ancestors sleep sleep in two increments known as "First Sleep and Second Sleep"

First Sleep and Second Sleep
The beginning of our ancestor's segmented sleep began at dusk and would last until midnight. In a 15th century medical book, readers were advised to spend this first sleeping pattern on their right side then change to the left during the second sleep period.

After our ancestors awoke from their first sleep, they would be active for a few hours. During this time people would talk to their neighbors, pray, meditate, have sex, read, write, chew tobacco and whatever else they could think of doing. Waking up after midnight was so common in societies everyone was expected to participate. 15th century prayer books contain special prayers to be said during this waking period. The 16th-century French physician,  Laurent Joubert, concluded  plowmen, artisans and others who worked with their hands had a better chance of conceiving children during the waking period between first and second sleep because they were well rested. An English cleric once wrote the best time for spiritual reflection was during this time.

There are still some people whose bodies naturally want to follow this ancient sleep cycle. Circadian neuroscience professor at Oxford University, Russell Foster explains, "Many people wake up at night and panic. I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern." Middle of the Night Insomnia is natural!

Sleep psychologists Gregg Jacobs believes this human adaption to segmented sleep may have played an important role in capacity humans have in dealing with stress. The time between sleep wasn't used for labor but as a time of relaxation and reflection. "Today we spend less time doing those things. It's not a coincidence that, in modern life, the number of people who report anxiety, stress, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse has gone up," Jacobs explained to BBC News.   

The waking moments between sleep only lasted for a few hours. Afterwards, everyone would return to bed for another four hours for their "Second Sleep."

Why The Change?
 Segmented Sleep slowly began to disappear during late 17th century Europe when members of the upper class society had begun to change their sleeping habits from two cycles into one. Ekirch claimed in an interview with BBC News the shift occurred because "Associations with night before the 17th Century were not good. Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night." The change in sleeping patterns coincided with the  Reformation and the counter-Reformation movement. Both Catholic and Protestants were holding secret meetings during the night. Depending on where you lived in Europe at that time being associated with either Catholics or Protestants could land you in prison where you would be tortured and killed for your beliefs.

1860's Street Light in Finland
Another reason for the change was the invention of street lighting. In 1667, Paris became the first city in the world to have street lighting by utilizing wax candles in glass lamps to light the streets. That same year, Lillie and Amsterdam added street lights to their cities with a much more efficient oil-powered lamp system. By the time London erected their street lights in 1684, more than 50 major European cities had already implemented street lights in their own cities. The street lights changed night life by making it possible for city inhabitants to more fun socializing outside rather than laying in bed.

During the Industrial Revolution, people began to rethink about the benefits of Segmented Sleep as opposed to a long eight hour sleep cycle. Evidence of this shift in thinking can be seen in medical journals of that time. An 1829 journal suggests that parents end their children's natural Segmented Sleep cycle. "If no disease or accident there intervene, they will need no further repose than that obtained in their first sleep, which custom will have caused to terminate by itself just at the usual hour.And then, if they turn upon their ear to take a second nap, they will be taught to look upon it as an intemperance not at all redounding to their credit." The movement to change from Segmented Sleep to 8 hour sleep spread quickly, especially after Thomas Alvin Edison invented the light bulb in 1879.

With the light bulb, factories could run all night and businesses could stay open longer. Sleep patterns were changing everywhere. People no longer waited until dusk to go to bed but went socializing or to work. Segmented Sleep was no longer practiced by the 1920's.

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