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First Sleep and Second Sleep

I finished a previous post, Korea’s Online Gaming Woes, by stating that other things wake me in the middle of the night or morning. Actually, I think I have something that’s called sleep maintenance insomnia, wherein I wake up at the same time every morning, usually between 2 and 3 o’clock. Most of time, I fall back asleep in 10 or 15 minutes. Some nights, I toss and turn for half an hour to an hour before being able to sleep again. Then, there are the times, especially on weekend nights, that I finally decide that I’m wide awake and won’t be able to get back to sleep immediately, so I get up around 3 a.m., brew a pot of coffee and surf the Internet for an hour or two before going back to bed. This mainly happens on weekend nights (Friday and Saturday) because I know that I can sleep in later. It occasionally happens on a school night, too, but, so far, my work hasn’t been affected by this nocturnal oddity. I really cannot remember a night in at least the past several years where I have not awoken in the wee hours.

Should I see a doctor about this? Luckily, no. This may actually be a throwback, so to speak, to pre-Industrial sleep habits, when people would have segmented sleep, a first sleep, followed by a waking period or one or two hours, and then a second sleep until time to get up for the day. The BBC News Magazine has an informative article about History Professor A. Roger Ekirch‘s research on the subject of segmented sleep.

 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

. . . 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.

And these hours weren’t entirely solitary – people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.

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.

He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses – which were sometimes open all night. As the night became a place for legitimate activity and as that activity increased, the length of time people could dedicate to rest dwindled.

If you want to read more, Prof. Ekirch has a rather long, scholarly, but very interesting article on The American Historical Review.

So, I guess I’m experiencing an anachronistic type of sleep behavior. Should I get some medication for this, like sleeping pills? For me, that’s not an option–I hate medicine and I don’t even have aspirin in my apartment. And in another article written for the NY Times, entitled “Dreams Deferred,” Ekirch writes:

Remarkably, then, our pattern of consolidated sleep has been a relatively recent development, another product of the industrial age, while segmented sleep was long the natural form of our slumber, having a provenance as old as humankind. (Homer even invoked the term “first sleep” in “The Odyssey.”) For experts like Dr. Thomas Wehr, who conducted the experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health, some common sleep disorders may be nothing more than sleep’s older, primal pattern trying to reassert itself — “breaking through,” as Dr. Wehr has put it, into today’s “artificial world.”

That theory, of course, remains to be proved. In the meantime, rather than resort to excessive medication, Americans might try to remember that though they’re sleeping less, they’re sleeping better and more seamlessly than humans ever have in the past. We might, on occasion, even choose to emulate our ancestors, for whom the dead of night, rather than being a source of dread, often afforded a welcome refuge from the regimen of daily life.

So, waking up in the wee hours following a first sleep doesn’t seem to be a problem for me, at least. Unfortunately, though, many of my students seem to go into second sleep as soon as English class begins.