I say ancestors, but really, it wasn’t that long ago. Your great-grandparents had a different sleeping cycle. It consisted not of one long sleep during the night, but two cycles of sleep, interrupted by one to two hours of activity in the middle of the night.
The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.
His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.
References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.
“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.
An English doctor wrote, for example, that the ideal time for study and contemplation was between “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Chaucer tells of a character in the Canterbury Tales that goes to bed following her “firste sleep.”
As we know, this practice eventually died out. Ekirch attributes the change to the advent of street lighting and eventually electric indoor light, as well as the popularity of coffee houses. Author Craig Koslofsky offers a further theory in his book Evening’s Empire. With the rise of more street lighting, night stopped being the domain of criminals and sub-classes and became a time for work or socializing. Two sleeps were eventually considered a wasteful way to spend these hours.
There are many people who still sleep like this. They often say that it is most natural for them, and scientists are starting to understand that it is actually better for people to sleep this way. It increases productivity, refreshes the brain more, and helps the body recover and protect itself from illness better. To read more, click here.