We need sleep so our brains can maintain normal levels of cognitive skills such as memory, interpreting messages from our senses, and appropriate emotional responses. Lack of sleep also impacts our ability to engage in creative thinking.

We know all this because there have been many studies on how are brains perform when deprived of restful sleep. Anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter cramming for midterms knows you’re not going to be at your best the next day. We tend to make bad decisions when tired. Reflexes are slow and the ability to adapt to dangerous situations starts to fall apart. It’s not smart to crank up the chainsaw after being up for 28 hours straight. We need good sleep to get the most out of life. Yet, our modern, technological world makes healthy and natural sleep patterns almost impossible.

Most people believe in the traditional 8 hours of continuous sleep starting around 10:00-11:00 at night, and going through until morning. Yet about one third of the population has periods when they wake up in the middle of the night, and can’t get back to sleep. Maybe the 8 hour sleep pattern is not the best option?  A better option is segmented sleep.

Roger Ekirch, a historian at Virginia Tech, spent 16 years researching sleep patterns during medieval times. The results were surprising. He found that prior to the industrial revolution, people had a segmented sleep pattern. In period literature, he discovered more than 500 references to the ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’ with a period of wakefulness in between.

Our current late-to-bed pattern is partly the result of our environment not getting dark when it’s supposed to. Instead, we light up our cities and our homes. Before streetlights and television, the pattern was to sleep for about 4 hours, waking around midnight. Then there was a wakeful period which lasted a few hours, followed by another 3 or 4 hours of sleep before starting the new day.

Those middle of the night waking hours were not solitary. Many people smoked, prayed, or even visited friends. There are many prayer manuals from the 15th century that had special prayers for the midnight wakeful period. It was also an ideal time for sex.

What our ancestors knew about great sex

On a personal note, I became interested in this after I left my last wage-slave job. I made a resolution to eat when hungry, and sleep when tired. It was all about the freedom to stay up all night, sleep in, and put that new found freedom to best advantage. What happened is that over a few months I drifted into this segmented sleep pattern. Wondering if I was becoming weird, I did a little research and found that this medieval slumber pattern was perfectly normal, once you start ignoring prime time television and the call of the corporate world.

A couple of things happened along with this new sleep pattern. Those early morning wakeful hours became my most intellectually productive time. Whether reading, writing, or processing photos, I just got a lot done during those hours. Another change was that I also drifted into a different eating schedule. I ate a large breakfast, still mostly cereals and fruit, and coffee. Can’t go without morning Java. As a result, I wasn’t hungry at the standard lunch break. I often had my large meal of the day around 4:00 in the afternoon. The dinner time slot is variable, and changes from time to time because the rest of the world refused to adapt to my schedule, but sharing a meal in the evening is no problem. The slightly later dinnertime insures I’m hungry when going out with friends.

Bottom line, I think the medieval sleep pattern is a contributing factor to a much lower stress level. I feel fresh and energetic and get more done.

The science of sleep

Our technological world has brought us many advantages and comforts. No one wants to go back to a time when homes were infested with vermin, or a simple cut could result in infection and death. In our high tech world, food is made in factories, pollution is everywhere, and a high stress, sedentary, life style conspires to damage our health. Getting a good night’s sleep goes a long way to helping you deal with modern life.  More enjoyable midnight sex would be a bonus.

Quote of the Day
“He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream.”

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1840)


The myth of the 8-hour sleep

Why a long night’s sleep may be bad for you.

Natural sleep cycles identified in rural community

The Science of Sleep