The Myth of 8-Hour Sleep

Did you get your 8 hours of shuteye last night or did you spend the better part of the night wondering why conventional wisdom says you need 8 hours of sleep?

Stephanie Hegarty over at BBC News Magazine explores the concept of the eight-hour sleep, which is actually not how humans have been sleeping, historically speaking:

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.

His book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern - in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer's Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

Much like the experience of Wehr's subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second 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.

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps. [...]

Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society.

By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness.


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I learned about first and second sleep a few years ago. I did something similiar one summer but work hours make things difficult. Wish I could do it all the time. Stupid modern society. ;)
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I work from home and just sleep whenever I get tired, day or night. Great as that sounds, if I need to be somewhere for a particular time I have to plan ahead if my natural sleep cycle has started to cover the time that I need to be awake. Often in winter I don't see daylight because that's when I sleep and the days are so short!

I'm not sure I'd like to have two sleeps, mostly because I often feel like crap when I get out of bed so I'd rather not have to go through that twice in one day. Frequent naps though, but I was putting that down to age :)
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