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What I've Learned
I wake up in the middle of the night, and it takes a couple of hours before I drift back off.
How do I know how long it takes me to go back to sleep? I have a small, under the pillow radio (heard only by me) with an automatic 90-minute shut off. I reach under the pillow and hit the on button, then hit it again when the radio goes off, but don't hit it a third time, which means that somewhere after 90 minutes but short of three hours is when I fall back to sleep.
I've worried about this change. Maybe stress is causing it. Maybe it's age related. Or is it a precursor to illness. Should I take a sleeping aid? Should I consult a doctor? What's wrong with me?
Probably nothing is wrong. Historians and scientists have discovered that throughout most of history, what I'm experiencing now was the normal sleep pattern. People went to bed early, slept for three or four hours, woke up for a few hours, then went back to sleep.
Because people tended to go to bed when the sun went down and get up when it rose, sleep and sleep-related activities were spread over 12 hours or so, a longer period then what we allot now.
Like hobbits in Tolkien's books, who had breakfast, then second breakfast, people used to have what they referred to as first sleep and second sleep.
What did folks do during the wakeful middle part? Read, pray, contemplate, tend the fire, have quiet conversations, smoke, write letters, have sex, whatever, all depending on their circumstances and inclinations.
This pattern didn't change until a few hundred years ago when reliable night-time lighting became available.
In 1667, Paris (France) began using wax candles in glass lamps to light its streets. Two years later in Amsterdam an efficient oil-powered lamp was developed. By the end of the 1600s, most of Europe's major towns and cities were lit up at night.
Oil lamps, gas lamps, and then electric bulbs caused people to stay up later. With fewer bedtime hours available, the idea of an uninterrupted eight-hour sleep came to be.
Before this modern era, the two-segment sleep pattern was so common that people took it for granted and hardly made mention of it. By 1920, the old way of sleeping had faded from our collective consciousness. Many clues, though, remain of the former sleep routine. References to first and second sleep appear in old court documents, journals, literature, and so on.
Chaucer, in one of his Canterbury Tales, mentions a woman who goes to bed following her “firste sleep.”
A doctor in the 1500s speculated that the reason working class people conceived more children is they typically had sex after their first sleep.
Historian Robert Ekirch wrote a book called "At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past," in which he provides abundant evidence that people used to sleep in two segments that were separated by a period of wakefulness.
In a study by Thomas Wehr, of the National Institutes of Mental Health, in the early 1990s, people had their light artificially controlled so that out of each 24-hour period there were 14 hours of darkness with no night lights available. They soon took on a dual segmented sleep pattern, waking up for a couple of hours in between the two segments.
In a search of the Internet, I was surprised at how many people say they regularly are awake for a while in the middle of the night, then go back to sleep.
There is debate about which is better for us, a solid block of sleep or a bi-modal sleep pattern. Either way, something not debated is that we tend to get too little sleep.
A couple of years ago, Arianna Huffington (you've heard of the Huffington Post?) gave a talk in which she said, "The way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep."
Be that sleep all at once or in two old-style blocks, I believe what Huffington said is true.