Segmented Sleep


The May 30, 2005 issue of The New Yorker contains Arthur Krystal’s rather scathing book review of A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. In fact, I might have never read the part of the article I found interesting, the last few paragraphs which touch on sleep patterns. Luckily I always read the New Yorker from the back, like I do all magazines, so I started with the end of the article, skipped to the beginning and then read on until I met myself in the middle.

Ekirch’s asserts that “until the close of the early modern era, Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of wakefulness.” Around midnight, they woke up, and instead of tossing and turning restlessly trying to get back to sleep, used the time to meditate, study, or talk.

In test subjects denied artificial light, their sleep patterns reverted to what was believe to be the pre-industrial pattern of broken slumber: “the subjects first lay awake in bed for two hours, slept for four, awakened again for two or three hours of quiet rest and reflection, and fell back asleep for four hours before finally awakening for good.” The researcher Dr. Thomas Wehr “likened this period of wakefulness to something approaching an altered state of consciousness not unlike meditation.”

Ekirch then theorizes that by replacing a 14-hour segmented sleep with an 8-hour seamless sleep, “we have lot touch with that deeper, more primal aspect of ourselves which emerges during moments after the first sleep.” Krystal thinks Ekirch’s stance that “segmented sleep is essential to some deeper understanding of who we are.” twists the evidence a bit too neatly.

I’ve long recognized that my own sleep/wake cycles are out of step with modern times. I used to think my ideal work day would be to work from 6AM to 11AM, rest from 11AM to 4PM and then work from 4PM to 8PM. In those days I usually slept through the night unless I was frantic about some deadline, when I’d wake up at 4AM. I wrote many a long email trying to explain some part of a project to my coworkers at 4AM.

Now that I have no schedule to keep, I tend to go to sleep around 11:30PM, wake up at 2:30AM, write or study until 4:30AM and then have a second sleep from 4:30AM to 7:30. I no longer lie in bed trying to sleep, because 1) it’s pointless, and 2) I don’t have to get up and be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for anyone. So I’ve come to terms with my odd sleeping habits. Now here comes the Mr. Ekirch saying I’m normal; it’s the rest of you who are weird.

One Response to “Segmented Sleep”

  1. Carol Responds:

    I have found that as I get older, I more often wake in the middle of the night, rested and ready to do something for a bit. Sometimes, I do get up, but there is that daily schedule to keep that makes me more often try to go back to sleep.

    Perhaps I should give in and get up more often?

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