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
Stephanie Hegarty over at BBC News Magazine explores the concept of the
eight-hour sleep, which is actually not how humans have been sleeping,
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.
The Myth of 8-Hour Sleep