I’m not alone when I say I’m not a morning person. I have 3 or 4 alarms on my phone linked to Spotify so I can wake up to the easy sounds of an acoustic guitar at 7am. I press snooze each time, only kicking off the covers and rolling out of bed when the last alarm blasts a power ballad, almost an hour after the first alarm.
I’ve scrolled through countless articles and lifestyle blog posts boasting top insider tips from successful people. Michelle Obama wakes up and hits the gym (at 4.30am!). Science shows that starting your day by jumping into a cold shower increases your circulation and makes you breathe deeper, which washes away fatigue. Another tip that might sound obvious is going to bed earlier so you can bag the recommended 8 hours of sleep each night. Although the benefits of exercising or taking cold showers as soon as you get out of bed have been proven, the amount of shut-eye you get the night before ultimately determines the quality and productivity of the rest of your day.
Interestingly though, Thomas Wehr’s sleep experiment in the 1990s and Roger Ekirch’s historical research in the early 2000s produced compelling evidence that an uninterrupted 8-hour sleep could be far from our natural sleeping pattern.
Ekirch explains that sleeping in two parts instead of one was thought of as natural before the Industrial Revolution. The first sleep began a couple hours after sunset and was followed by a “waking period” of one or two hours before the second sleep which lasted until morning. Ekirch found that early paintings, journal entries and literature from Homer’s Odyssey (dated around the 8th century BCE) to Charles Dickens in the late 19th century referred to parts of the night as the “first sleep” and “second sleep”.
“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) (BBC).
Ekirch found that people used the time between sleeps to read, reflect, or write. This conjures up images of Scrooge-like figures wandering around stone buildings in night gowns or hunched over a desk, dipping a quill into a pot of ink. Yet ever since the introduction of artificial light in homes, first gas burners, then electric bulbs and LEDs, the natural distinction between day and night in modern life became fuzzy.
In this passage, Clark Strand (2015) brings into focus the way our modern life is constantly illuminated:
“Lights are everywhere. They are so pervasive in modern life we’ve stopped seeing them. In turning them off, it’s hard to know where to begin. There are house lights and garage lights, fluorescent lights and halogen lights. There are streetlights and stoplights, headlights, taillights, dashboard lights, and billboard lights. There are night-lights to stand sentinel against the dark of our rooms and hallways and reading lights for feeding our addiction to words and images and information, even in the middle of the night. There are warning lights and safety lights, and the lights of our cell phones and televisions and computer screens”. (X)
Even as I am writing on my laptop, the first stars are appearing as the sun sinks below the horizon and I pause to tone down the blue hue of the screen, meanwhile outside streetlights are blinking to life and the windows of distant houses glow yellow. It’s impossible to imagine straying from all sources of artificial light from sunset to sunrise. More and more aspects of life are moving online, and we are increasingly tied to our phones and computer screens to stay connected.
But this doesn’t mean that the habit of sleeping in two parts is totally out of reach. In the 1990s, Thomas Wehr led a sleep experiment to find out if people would return to segmented sleeping if their environment simulated a preindustrial and pre-electric world, or if the practice had been lost over time. For one month, Wehr’s subjects were removed from sources of artificial light from dusk until dawn. By the final week the participants’ sleeping patterns had shifted from an uninterrupted 8-hour sleep into two 4-hour sleeps separated by a 2-hour waking period. This experiment, coupled with Ekirch’s research on the history of sleeping in two parts, stirred the world of sleep research. Kate Emslie (2014) highlighted that after discussing their work, the 2013 meeting of the US Associated Professional Sleep Societies concluded that “middle of the night insomnia” was not a disorder, but the body trying to return to its natural rhythm of sleeping in two parts (X). This suggests that our bodies have not forgotten the time when waking up in the middle of the night was natural. However, our sleeping habits have altered to align with fast-paced modern lifestyles flooded with light and noise.
Emslie and Strand found that sleeping in two parts still comes easily to some people and might even benefit creative workers. Emslie explained how she found that waking up for a couple hours in the middle of the night and turning the lights back on was a golden time to write and develop ideas. Emslie found it easier for ideas to filter from her mind to her fingertips, where they darted across a keyboard to form sentences on the screen. This might be because working during the small hours of the morning is quieter than working in the middle of the day, which is filled with chatter and distractions. Ekirch thought that people are closer to their dreams and subconscious thoughts in the hours between sleeps than during daylight hours, which could be why some people find it easier for ideas to flow onto pages and screens after their first sleep (X).
Wehr’s sleep experiment found that leaving the lights off during the first and second sleep had a different but fascinating effect. The participants experienced a state of mind that could have been familiar to our ancestors but is unique to most of us living in urban environments today. What they described was a state of consciousness on the edge of sleep and wakefulness, a feeling similar to meditation, where they felt peaceful and secure. Wehr found that the increased production of prolactin levels in the waking period explained this phenomenon.
One of the ideas in Clark Strand’s book, Waking up to the Dark, was that returning to the way our ancestors slept in pre-industrial and pre-electric times could be key to finding peace and happiness in modern life. However, the meditative state triggered by increased prolactin levels can only be experienced if the lights stay off. Graci explained that the smallest amount of artificial light, such as the glow of a digital alarm clock, would be enough to skew the release of prolactin in our brains. This means that the peaceful waking period between sleeps that was familiar to our ancestors is increasingly harder for us to experience (Graci 2001: The Food Connection: The Right Food at the Right Time).
So, the way we sleep has changed over centuries to adapt to how much rest we really need to maximise the quality of our day. Back during the time when the only lights were the glow of candles, the sun and the moon, people might have taken two sleeps. Their time was managed by shadows cast by the sun and the changing seasons. Today though, days are divided by alarms and deadlines. However, the natural rhythm of taking two sleeps is still with some of us. Some people switch the lights on to write during the quiet hours when our dreams and subconscious ideas float to the surface of our minds. For others, covering sources of artificial light and spending the time between sleeps in darkness could bring us closer to experiencing the mysterious state of consciousness once familiar to our ancestors. Nevertheless, sleep experts argue that an 8 hour uninterrupted sleep is still best suited to our busy light-filled world. Taking two sleeps may be best left in the past after all.