Today is Wednesday, September 4, 2013.
A while back, I was listening to Wayne Dyer speak, and he told his audience that there was a natural break in sleep pattern for human beings, around 2-3 a.m. He said that it was a natural time to get up and do things, after which you could go back to sleep. According to Dyer, this is a perfect time to meditate. I was reminded, when I heard that, of the fact that a lot of retired folks get up in the middle of the night, then go back to sleep. My parents do, and I’m getting to be the same way. I had no idea that this was a natural sleep pattern for human beings!
In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that people started to feel that they needed to sleep all night to be refreshed. Sure, a body needs about eight hours of sleep in every twenty-four, but it doesn’t have to be done all at once. Roger Ekirch, of Virginia Tech, researched the subject for sixteen years before publishing a paper in 2001, in which he stated that there is a great deal of historical evidence that people used to sleep in two separate chunks, often called “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Four years after his paper, he published a book called At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past . One of the most interesting things, to Ekirch, is the fact that people thought of this sleep pattern as completely normal. In the time between sleep cycles, people would get up and smoke, chat, have sex, or use the toilet. Sometimes they even went out to visit neighbors. Most often, however, they read, wrote, or prayed, and there are many devotional materials from the fifteenth century that offered special prayers for this time of night.
References to first and second sleep began to disappear in the late 1600s, particularly among the urban upper classes in northern Europe. By the early 1900s, mention of two nightly sleeps was gone. Ekirch thinks this is because of improvements in lighting in homes and on the street, and the rise in the number of coffee shops that were open late at night. Once lighting in homes became available to the lower classes, they, too, began to stay up late. Pretty soon, sleeping more than once in 24 hours was thought of as being lazy.
Although most people seem to have adapted to the 8-hour sleep cycle, Ekirch thinks that sleeping problems may be due to the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep, the fact that our homes tend to have a lot of artificial light, even at night. If you have trouble sleeping all night, it might be worth trying to go to bed a little earlier, wake up naturally and spend some time reading or meditating, then go back to sleep until morning.
For those who live in hot, tropical climates, the siesta is a time-honored tradition. Schools and places of business take the hottest hours of the afternoon off, and people spend time sleeping or at least resting. The Tiv tribe in Nigeria have words for “first sleep” and “second sleep” that indicate specific times of the night.
I’m glad I have the freedom to sleep when my body needs to, but I wish that schools and businesses were more “nap friendly” or “second sleep friendly.” I’m generally a night-owl, but I’m going to try going to bed a little earlier and getting up at night contemplate, then get some writing done. We’ll see how this works. 🙂