You’re Doing It Wrong: Our Ancestors Slept A Completely Different Way

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You hit the sack at 11pm and wake up at 7am. That’s a perfect eight hours, but you still feel groggy and weird sometimes, right? Like you aren’t quite fully rested. Well, there’s good reason for that.

According to Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech, there’s overwhelming evidence that humans never used to sleep that way. In 15 years of research, he found that people normally slept in two different chunks. They would often sleep for 4 hours, wake for 1-3 hours, then sleep for another four hours.

“Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society. By the 1920’s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness.”

It could very well be because segmented sleeping just kind of comes naturally to us. It’s the process at work when you wake at 4am and just can’t get back to sleep for a couple hours. But why the change?

“Associations with night before the 17th Century were not good. The night was a place populated by people of disrepute – criminals, prostitutes and drunks.” says Craig Koslofsky, an historian. “Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night.”

So what are we to make of all this?

“Many people wake up at night and panic. I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.” says Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University. “But the majority of doctors still fail to acknowledge that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural. Over 30% of the medical problems that doctors are faced with stem directly or indirectly from sleep.”

“But sleep has been ignored in medical training and there are very few centers where sleep is studied.”

It kind of makes me want to give it a try. Would you do it?