February 19, 2006

That's not insomnia, that's the natural sleep pattern breaking through!

I love to run across a surprising fact that I hadn't known before:
Until the modern age, most households had two distinct intervals of slumber, known as "first" and "second" sleep, bridged by an hour or more of quiet wakefulness. Usually, people would retire between 9 and 10 o'clock only to stir past midnight to smoke a pipe, brew a tub of ale or even converse with a neighbor.

Others remained in bed to pray or make love. This time after the first sleep was praised as uniquely suited for sexual intimacy; rested couples have "more enjoyment" and "do it better," as one 16th-century French doctor wrote. Often, people might simply have lain in bed ruminating on the meaning of a fresh dream, thereby permitting the conscious mind a window onto the human psyche that remains shuttered for those in the modern day too quick to awake and arise.
Why was I not informed of this earlier? Not only is this supremely interesting, but is it also useful. I often wake up after an interval of "first sleep," but I've never thought of it as anything but a problem, a form of insomnia to be combatted by getting back to sleep as soon as possible. I'm fascinated by the idea of valuing this wakeful interlude by engaging in activities that, for one reason or another, are done especially well in an hour between two sleeps.

A. Roger Ekirch, the author of the linked article, theorizes that the older pattern of sleeping is the natural one, and our modern "consolidated sleep" is an artificial byproduct of artificial lighting. What we are perceiving as a sleep problem is really this natural form of sleeping breaking through.

This is simply amazing news. It might just change my way of living. I have been thinking that it's just terrible to go to bed as early as 9 only to wake up and see that it's midnight. I've thought that it's important to stay up late enough that you won't just be taking what turns out to be merely a nap, a sleep snack that spoils my appetite for a full meal of sleep. Now, I'm going to think, it's time for first sleep. On waking at midnight, instead of thinking, oh, no, there's no way I can start the day this early if I can't get back to sleep. I'm going to think it's a valuable opportunity, use the time, and feel confident about the arrival of the wholly natural and not at all weird second sleep.

19 comments:

chuck b. said...

This is relatively old news in the scientific literature.

I started trying to utilize my sleep interval a few years ago, and 90% of the time, I'm extremely tired after about 30-45 minutes of being up that I need to go back to bed. Not enough time to be productive in my life--plus, most of what I want to do is outdoor activity that requires light. I usually end up spending the time watching TiVo'd television, reading blogs, or spending quality time with my cat.

That 30-45 minutes of being up is much, much better than the 60-120 minutes I used to spend lying in bed trying to force myself to go back to sleep.

Joan said...

I think what happens to me is that I skip "first sleep" entirely, choosing to hold out until I'm ready for the longer, second sleep.

From what I know about the cortisol cycle, this sleep theory matches up pretty well with the peaks and troughs of the levels of cortisol in our systems. No one really knows why we get a release of cortisol around midnight, but that would coincide with the timing of the break. Fighting the natural sleep rhythm could be yet another way we put stress on our adrenal glands.

me said...

I tend to believe that the natural sleeping cycle including a nap at some point... If you look at animals, they basically sleep when they feel like sleeping.

Alan said...

Ah, and the midnight snack is really first breakfast. Could it be some of us have an inner Hobbit? :)

Irene Done said...

Is it too much to say I feel really liberated by this? I always, always wake up after about 3 hours of sleep and I usually watch international business news until I can fall asleep again. Now I still feel weird about the business news part but less weird about being awake. This information might inspire me to be a little more active -- how do you brew a tub of ale?

Ruth Anne Adams said...
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Simon Kenton said...

Ruth Anne -

I believe Pliny the Elder dictated his works during this nightly interval; Ann would be in good polyhistoric company (though we hope she will not share his end). Apparently his slaves, who had to get up and support his working, very much disliked this habit; perhaps they were early modernists.

Ruth Anne Adams said...
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amba said...

Oh, so THAT's what we're doing! I feel better about it now.

chuck b., I don't think that time is meant for heavy lifting. It's meant for companionship and reverie. For things you could do by candlelight. Another thing about us moderns is that we're always trying to "utilize" everything and be "productive" all the time. The net result probably is that we're less productive, and more stressed out.

knoxgirl said...

Being up at night can be really fun and even productive; but it can also be profoundly lonely. My bouts with insomnia over the years have kind of soured me on the possibility of actually liking being up in the middle of the night.

yetanotherjohn said...

I do not know the man, but I suspect if he is like most men, anything that brings the prospect of an increase in coitus will be positively received.

Nick said...

Here's an article on a related topic which argues that your subconscious mind is better at making decisions than your conscious. Sleeping on a big decision might be a good idea after all.

Chip Ahoy said...

The eight hour work day forced by modern industry caused the separation from our natural habits of naps and siestas. Workers untie!

I don't feel the slightest bit guilty or even self-conscious about conking out in the middle of the day. But I ask you, who's going to hire a guy like me?

It's a bit odd when I'm asked, "So what's your schedule?" I don't have one. I just sleep whenever I conk out which adds up to a little bit less than normal people beholden to a schedule. I get woken up all the time for ordinary things like answering the phone or the door and it's not a problem, if you exclude the answering the door in my sorts part.

RC said...

And there's the prolactin surge that happens during the period of wakefulness between 1st and 2nd sleep. It seems to result in heightened wakefulness during the day.

There's a TED talk about this that's got people all interested in this all over again. Great post.

justbeing said...

I've heard of second sleep by accident but never considered it as an actual alternative to finding a cure to my insomnia. After years of therapy, including counseling, medication, lifestyle changes and hypnosis I decided that it was just a haazard of menause. But now, I've come to the conclusion that with menapause I've begun to discover my more natural self. I've always told my therapist that I felt as if my "insomnia" was trying to tell me something, and that I was missing something. I truly believe I have been right all along. I look forward to my hour of peace and quiet tonight and exloring quiet opportunities to get better in touch with my natural self. Thank you very much for your post on this subject.

Peter said...

I can't easily imagine how dark it must have been in a medieval city (let alone in the countryside).

After dark, therre would have been no one about other than the night watchman (whose job was to rouse the town if invaders were seen coming over the walls).

Apparently in many medieval cities it was a crime to be out after dark, as the assumption was that, other than keeping the watch, there were no legitimate reasons for being out (but plenty of nefarious ones).

Since only the rich would have had access to light sources better than tallow candles (which burn with a weak, smoky, smelly light), presumably those who lived far from the equator would have had 16 hours or so of darkness to deal with every day.

So, what did they do with it? I dunno, but I expect they couldn't sleep away all of it.

Yale said...

Thank you for your 'first sleep"/"second sleep" post. It is sad how many people are blythely taking costly sleeping pills which they get addicted to, for what is often not an unhealthy condition.

We would also love to know your thoughts pro or con about what we are doing and why and how, per TrueTyme.org?

Warmest regards, Yale and Jackie Landsberg
The Better Tymes Project/Better Tymes for Women

Yale said...
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Jamie said...

I just read a book on sleep that discusses mot just bimodal sleep but the fact that teenagers seem to naturally fall asleep later and wake later, and elders tend to fall asleep earlier and wake earlier. As if, in our earliest intimate communities, we evolved social/sleep patterns to ensure that someone was always on watch in the dark hours...