Sleep We Have Lost
October 1, 2012 12:57 PM   Subscribe

A. Roger Ekirch on the history of segmented sleep. via NYT
posted by Lorin (24 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 1:04 PM on October 1, 2012


Is there a special name to the fallacy of "that's the way we've always done it" - the sub-specialty here is "well, people were doing it thousands of years ago, so it must be good".
posted by k5.user at 1:12 PM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


"The night was somewhat dark, for though there was a moon in the sky it was not in a quarter where she could be seen; for sometimes the lady Diana goes on a stroll to the antipodes, and leaves the mountains all black and the valleys in darkness. Don Quixote obeyed nature so far as to sleep his first sleep, but did not give way to the second, very different from Sancho, who never had any second, because with him sleep lasted from night till morning, wherein he showed what a sound constitution and few cares he had."
posted by Iridic at 1:22 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fortunately for us, we already have a word for that thing where you snark dismissively about something you only just heard about and barely understand.
posted by mhoye at 1:22 PM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not having finished the article, I'm not so sure it is saying it must be good. I think the fact that it was once done differently is significant. Not sleeping all night is even medicalized now, so accepting an interrupted sleep as normal definitely has consequences.
posted by idiopath at 1:23 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


As I grow older I'm getting more and more like Emily Litella. My first reaction to this post was, "What's all this about segmented sheep?"
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:25 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just woke up from a post-prandial nap. What are y'all talking about here?
posted by twsf at 2:15 PM on October 1, 2012


I actually tried this many years ago. It did not work for me. That is a gross understatement.

It started with being assigned to a work shift that didn't agree with my normal biological clock. I decided to give segmented sleep a try, because I had heard about how Utterly! Amazing! it was.

After about two weeks, I ended my experiment. It never settled right for me. I was constantly more tired than I had been before, when I was struggling with only 5-6 hours. Turns out that I - and I suspect many people - do better on a solid 6-hour block than on two 4-hour blocks.

I was convinced to end my attempt when I had a dream that an alarm was going off. In my dream, it was someone else's alarm, and I could safely ignore it. In reality it was the sound of my alarm clock going off.

When I realized that my own brain was conspiring against me to get more sleep, I realized that segmented sleep was not for me.

One factor many people don't consider: segmented sleep is (and was) most common in non-electrified parts of the world. If you live at a northern latitude where it's dark from 5PM-8AM in winter, what else are you going to do all night? You fall asleep when it gets dark, you wake up in the middle of the night and putter around, then go back to sleep until dawn.

People were probably clocking 10 hours of sleep across 12-14 hours of darkness. I'm sure they felt quite rested, but that's just not going to fly in contemporary western society. This ain't medieval Europe; we've got shit to do, regardless of the sun's schedule.
posted by ErikaB at 2:43 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've had this for years. Gave up worrying about it long ago.
posted by hal9k at 2:47 PM on October 1, 2012


This is a fascinating piece of historical scholarship that feels important to me, as I usually sleep about five hours and 45 minutes a night, then wake up, even if it's 4:30 in the morning, as was the case today.

I find the whole idea that we pathologize behavior that used to be considered normal fascinating. Do we get to blame big pharma for this? Anyway, I just sent it to my Kindle for easier reading.
posted by mecran01 at 2:48 PM on October 1, 2012


Peasant couples, who were often too tired after field labor to do much more than eat and go to sleep, awakened later to have sex.[5] People also used this time to pray and reflect,[6] and to interpret dreams, which were more vivid at that hour than upon waking in the morning. This was also a favorite time for scholars and poets to write uninterrupted, whereas still others visited neighbors, or engaged in petty crime.[7]

You could write a novel around this: The Witching Hour! Oh, wait, that title is taken. Hmm...
posted by gray17 at 2:52 PM on October 1, 2012


I can't speak to the solidity of his thesis, but I now know what dagswain and hapharlots were. As a historical fiction writer, I'm always on the lookout for odds and ends like that.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:15 PM on October 1, 2012


My first reaction to this post was, "What's all this about segmented sheep?"

New Cyriak video?
posted by Foosnark at 3:19 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm fascinated by the idea that people "naturally" slept in two shifts and this is all forgotten knowledge. The evidence cited is pretty thin; if this were a common phenomenon you'd expect a lot more written sources describing it.

But one problem with the "its natural" evidence; it's dark at night. There's really not a lot of value in being awake when you can't see. That makes me find it hard to believe that being awake an hour or two is some healthy human evolutionary trait. (As opposed to the misery of the anxious modern man.)
posted by Nelson at 4:34 PM on October 1, 2012


Goodness. I did this "experiment" last year when after our baby was born and it's a miracle that I did not kill someone, be killed myself, get fired at work, allow my brittle facade of humanity to crumble etc. My life was an intermittent hellscape for several months. Thankee, no.
posted by smoke at 4:39 PM on October 1, 2012


But one problem with the "its natural" evidence; it's dark at night. There's really not a lot of value in being awake when you can't see.

Moonlight! It's great, you should give it a try. Fire is also great. You can see remarkably well in the hazy light of overcast skies, too, once your eyes become accustomed to it.
posted by mhoye at 6:27 PM on October 1, 2012


It started with being assigned to a work shift that didn't agree with my normal biological clock.

Also known as the standard business day.

But seriously, my body seems to be hard-wired to sleeping 2am-10am. I even bought a Philips wake-up light alarm clock. I will eventually wake up when the audio component activates, with my body facing away from the light, sometimes head buried under a pillow.

I work 9-6, but only because that's the latest my job will let me come in. I would work Noon-8pm if I could.

The spring Daylight Saving Time switch is hell, for me.
posted by Fleebnork at 6:36 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


My 3.5-year old has a segmented sleep schedule. IT IS FUCKING KILLING US. Seriously. No one else in the family has had a decent night sleep since he was born because after 4 hours of sleep, it's party time! for the little sprog.

The dark thoughts that start to go through your mind after months of getting only 4-6 hours of sleep a night are not pretty. He should thank his lucky starts that he is adorable in all other aspects except for the damned sleep schedule.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:51 PM on October 1, 2012


Someone once told me that it is ideal to sleep from 9-6 or so, the idea being that we are evolved to sleep in harmony with the diurnal cycles, etc... Thing is, this would leave time to take a 'break' from sleep in the middle of the night to, y'know, get it on, have a look around outside the tee-pee, check on the fire, etc. Makes sense except that there is no way on earth I am going to bed at NINE! Screw evolution!
posted by Bartonius at 7:56 PM on October 1, 2012


MetaFilter: This ain't medieval Europe; we've got shit to do.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:23 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's another account by the professor.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:16 PM on October 1, 2012


Ekirch's book on nighttime, At Day's Close, is the most atmospheric, dreamy (no, really!) historical study I've ever read. Highly recommended.
posted by bubukaba at 12:54 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


When I was about 10 I slept split. I would get up and go for walks. I was in love with the quiet of the night. I did do a bit of minor mischief, nothing serious. Mostly I just enjoyed walking around with no one to tell me what to do. I loved the sneaking part. I'd wake about 3am, go walk an hour, then back to bed.
posted by Goofyy at 4:54 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ekirch's book on nighttime, At Day's Close, is the most atmospheric, dreamy (no, really!) historical study I've ever read. Highly recommended.

Yeah. The sort of ...poetic quality of his writing is what drew me in. I doubt I'dve finished a more dry aproach to the same topic. Looking forward to reading the book.

I can't speak to the solidity of his thesis, but I now know what dagswain and hapharlots were. As a historical fiction writer, I'm always on the lookout for odds and ends like that.

Little details like that were the other thing that kept me reading. The mention of rushlights and candlewood led me into a rabbit hole of weird old websites about early modern lighting.

I've experimented with segmented sleep in connection with lucid dreaming, but I was waking up for a brief period at dawn. I'm not sure I could stand a nine o'clock bedtime, although over the winter in a fairly quiet town will be a good time to try.
posted by Lorin at 11:20 AM on October 2, 2012


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