Sleep has never been the one long block of dreamland that we think it ought to be. Historian Roger Ekirch began doing research for a history of the night, perhaps hoping he would actually spot a ghost. He kept seeing strange references to sleep. In the Canterbury Tales, for instance, one of the characters in “The Squire’s Tale, wakes up in the early morning following her “first sleep” and then goes back to bed. A fifteenth century medical book advised readers to spend their “first sleep” on the right side and after that to lie on their left. And a scholar in England wrote that the time between these two separate types of sleep came one after another, until Ekirch could no longer brush them aside as a curiosity.
Historically, people fell asleep not long after the sun went down and stayed that way until sometime after midnight. This was the first sleep referred to in the old tales. Once a person woke up, he or she would stay that way for an hour or so before going back to sleep until morning—the so-called second sleep. The time in between sleeps was an expected and natural part of the night, and was spent praying, reading, contemplatig your dreams, or having sex. The last one was perhaps the most popular. (i’m not saying which I do, but bear in mind that “Sleepig Beauty” stayed asleep until wakened with a kiss by her Prince Charming.)
Pschiatrist Thomas Wehr, working for the National Institute For Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was struck by the idea that perhaps the artificial light we are subjected to each day could have some effect on our sleep patterns.
On a whim, he deprived subjects in his study of any artificial light to try to recreate conditions such as were common to early humans. At first, all they did was sleep, making up for all the lost sleep they had accumulated. After a few weeks, they were better rested than at any other time in their lives. However, the experiment soon took a strange turn. Soon, the subjects began to stir a little after midnight, lie awake in bed for an hour or so, and then fall back asleep again. The experiment revealed the innate wiring in the brain, unearthed only after the body was sheltered from modern life.
Numerous other studies have proven that splitting sleep into two roughly equal halves is something that our bodies will do if we give them a chance. Yet two decades after Wehr’s study was published in a medical journal, many sleep researchers–not to mention your average physician, have never heard of it. When patients complain about waking up at roughly the same time every night, many physicians will reach for a pen and write a prescription for a sleeping pill, not realizing they are medicating a condition that was considered normal for thousands of years.
My advice is to take a lesson from those early ancestors and get up, read a book, contemplate your dreams, study, have sex, or maybe even write a blog.