The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep

Perhaps for children the idea of sleeping through the night rings true; indeed my own son, once fallen into the land of Nod, rarely rises unless I call him to do. Well, it’s true this may be because he is so active during his waking time that perhaps he wears himself out, especially in his denial of sleep. But that’s another story, one that may or may not change as he gets older.

For myself, I do recall that I loved to chat to my sister as we lay tucked in our beds at night, but she frequently employed pretense of slumber so I would grow bored of her lack of response and go to sleep myself. As a grown-up, however, falling into sleep is rarely a problem; it’s waking in the middle of the night that has plagued me for years. This restlessness is so like clockwork that I started going to sleep later to avoid it. No matter, I woke up again at the same time; compounding the problem, or so I thought, was going to the computer, reading a book or writing in a journal. “I should be trying to do something to make me sleepy,” I would reprimand my undisciplined self. Until I saw this:

We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night – but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

Though sleep scientists were impressed by the study, among the general public the idea that we must sleep for eight consecutive hours persists.

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.

Two distinct chunks? Used to do? That really caught my attention. Apparently this has been a normal pattern of humanity across eras and geographical regions. People were so used to it that it was commented upon in passing, the way we might mention “a good night’s sleep.” It was only when public lighting began to affect behavior that sleep patterns were affected as well. In the early 1800s the need to utilize all available time was already taking a strong enough hold on the collective perception that a medical journal urged parents to break their children from the distinct sleep patterns. Modern parents of infants ignore this advice, for when babies awake, usually to eat, they are lulled or allowed to fall back into sleep afterward (if the parents are lucky). But most people, sans tiny alarm clocks, attempt the long haul and become anxious when it doesn’t happen.

I can relate to this dilemma, even remembering some nights of anxiety in which I found myself thinking, after having woken an hour or two previously, “It is 5:30; why am I still awake!?” Recently I have been seriously attempting to avoid the computer at night, bearing in mind the idea that one should not watch TV at bedtime or after awoken sleep. As it happens, I am currently reading one of the best books I’ve ever done (The Sunne in Splendour), and so it was with pleasure that The Body Shop Body Care Manual recommends reading for a little while upon waking in the middle of the night. So while I ignored this advice periodically, for most nights since then this is exactly what I did when otherwise I might lay thinking, allowing my to-do list to grow in my head, and plans to formulate as to how I ought to approach my objectives and current dilemmas, and what if I try this and something else happens, maybe I better do this other thing first, and I better not do that until the next day, and on and on and on.

Part of this was relieved upon following the advice of someone who suggested I make a to-do list before I go to sleep, the idea being that the list will hold onto all my tasks so I won’t have to. And I exhaled gladly when I read this article. It occurred to me I had been fighting all my life something that was, in fact, completely natural. Giving in and simply allowing it might actually relax me more than fighting it. It seems like such good sense that the sentence previous to this comes off like a no brainer. So for a couple of nights now I have been picking up my book and reading for just a few minutes before putting it back down and drifting off to my second sleep. Taking up some other commonly heard (but often little heeded) wisdom to turn to one’s advantage what might otherwise work against one, I decided I would return my notebook to bedside, with intent to write prayers, make notes and outlines for projected projects and activities—ones designed for pleasure and thanks, not just errands and petitions related to a manner of continued existence.

I also made a conscious decision to think about this as my period “before the second sleep” as opposed to “after the first sleep.” While they both refer to the same chunk of time, I feel inclined to utilize the one that implies looking towards the future, which is, after all, what I tend to think about as I attempt to make it better than the past. And because so many of the ideas that come to me, including ones I’d thought I might write about in a blog I had been contemplating, come at this time, I decided to name the blog after it. No longer will this nighttime phase be my nemesis; in fact, I will elevate its importance, short as it may be, by embracing and naming it, and no longer seeking to avoid.

As for my son, who would read in his sleep if he could, he has in the past been awakened by my own stirring. At some of these times when he saw me reading, he wanted to as well, and sometimes I let him. Little did I know the role I may have been playing in the re-emergence of this habit, a possibility I consider knowing that many in our modern society have been looking again into the past, feeling uncertainty and dissatisfaction with the “evolved” ways of today. In an age when the dissemination of information is faster than ever before—when even that written on parchments centuries before by people who expected their writing to take days or weeks to reach others can now spread from one continent to another in less than one hour—ideas for change, even when started small, can spread quickly and be taken up by not a few others.

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