I have just found this really fascinating article on the BBC about the way we sleep. I’ve been a poor sleeper all my life, suffering from quite bad insomnia up until the age of 18 (I would regularly have 4 hours of sleep, sometimes less and it would take me 3 hours or more to get to sleep), so I was instantly drawn to the title: The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep.
I’m just going to outline the bits I found interesting in the article, so do go and read it for a fuller account, together with interesting quotes from proper historians!
It seems that the natural pattern of sleep for humans is to sleep for around 4 hours, then be awake for an hour or two, before sleeping again for around 4 hours.
This apparently ancient pattern, old enough to be mentioned by Homer, began to change in the late 17th century (my second favourite century!) with the advent of open-all-hours coffee houses and the new acceptability of being up and about all night. Prior to the 17th century, the article tells us, the night was a time for, well, ladies of the night and other figures of ill repute. However with coffee shops and better lighting at home and on the streets (in 1667 Paris became the first city to light its streets), it would seem that ‘partying all night’ became fashionable, but left little time for a two-stage sleep, so we began to sleep all in one chunk.
The change also appears to be linked to The Industrial Revolution’s new interest in efficiency, with the double-sleep taking up too much time that could be spent in productivity!
So, if, like me, you’ve suffered from insomnia, it might well have its roots in this change … I would find it very interesting to try out this sleeping pattern. The article even mentions that traditionally people often spent their gap between sleep visiting neighbours, getting steamy(!) or writing, so perhaps it’s a way of making time to write without feeling harried and tired by doing it after a long day at work or feeling tired by doing it before work. It even sounds as if this time between sleeps is a relaxing, peaceful period where you feel awake and invigorated… All very interesting stuff.
If I work out a way to try this out, I’ll let you know!