Two Sleeps – How People Used to Slumber

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and just could not go back to sleep?  Apparently, this type of nightly waking used to be the ‘norm’ as part of a two-sleep cycle engaged in by many of our ancestors pre-1800’s.  Two sleeps was how people used to sleep: one early cycle, rising for a few hours to read, relax, meditate or have sex, and then another cycle of sleep to follow until morning.

According to Roger Ekirch, a professor of History at Virginia Tech who first ‘uncovered’ the practice by studying writings of those who kept record in the pre-1800’s era, the range of both sleeps covered about 12 hours.  This included a waking period of two to three, sometimes four hours where folks would largely stay inside and relax.  It is believed this is why there were maybe more children during these times, as couples would often have sex after the first sleep.

Surely the lack of electric light contributed to the habit of staying in for half of the day.  It has been likened to the long winter months when light is scarce, and people tend to find more activities indoors to take up the time.  These two sleeps were referred to as “two-piece sleeping” and apparently, the way it is spoken of, even in medical records, points to the commonality of the practice.

In the early 1990’s a psychiatrist named Thomas Wehr of the National Institutes of Mental Health performed a study on photoperiodicity (exposure to light), and how it effected sleep patterns.  During this time 15 men were watched, spending four weeks with restricted daylight.  The pattern of light was set up to be, in effect, like the light of winter months, with roughly 10 hours of light and 14 hours of darkness.  During this time, the participant’s sleep patterns shifted in an interesting way.

At first, they seemed to sleep longer, as if they had been sleep-deprived, but over time the men began to participate in the two sleeps tradition, rising for several hours in the middle of two shorter sleeping times.  So, apparently, the two sleeps is not only how people used to slumber, but perhaps a natural innate behavior we have simply lost.

Professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford, Russell Foster says that waking in the night is no great cause for concern, as many express when they cannot sleep.   “Many people wake up at night and panic,” he says. “I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.”

A man by the name of J.D. Moyer decided to experiment with his family to see if going without electricity for a month would affect their lifestyle and sleeping patterns and it did just that. Moyer writes: “I would go to bed really early, like 8:30, and then get up around 2:30am.  This was alarming at first, but then I remembered that this sleep pattern was quite common in pre-electric light days.  When this happened I would end up reading or writing by candlelight for an hour or two, then going back to bed.

If you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, maybe it’s best to rise and do something mellow, and see how the duel sleep time serves you.  Being exposed to electricity definitely changes our natural sleep rhythms.  A conscious effort to spend at least some nights during the week by candlelight only could bring some interesting results.  Who knows – maybe you’ll start having two sleeps the way people used to slumber.

Written by: Stasia Bliss

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