Most of us in the Western world see our way of sleeping as natural when in fact it is an artifice shaped by a number of different influences. Recent research has shown that humans do not naturally sleep in a single eight hour block every night but rather sleep for between six and seven hours in two or three blocks over the night, waking in between for an hour or so at a time. So what then are the major influences on how we sleep now?
The first major influence is artificial light and in particular electric light bulbs. Before we had easy to use and consistent artificial light most people went to bed far earlier than we do today. The common bed time for adults in the Western world is around eleven, while in the past it was more like eight thirty. Artificial light allowed us to stay awake later, compressing our sleep into one block.
The other major influence is the regularisation of working hours. The nine to five working week became standard in the 19th Century, cutting down on many peoples’ working hours and standardising them. This meant that they had more time in the morning and evening for social recreation and combined with artificial light it demanded a standardised sleep period that maximised the work-life balance, eradicating the ‘wasted’ wakeful hours in the middle of the night.
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