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Sleep in the 1800s looked nothing like your sleep today

12-02-2014

Sleep in the 1800s looked nothing like your sleep today

What do you think sleep in the 1800s was like? For most of you, unless you are a sleep historian, you will probably imagined that it was not much different to the way we sleep now days. Wrong! In fact, the way people slept back in the 1800s was quite different. It goes to show how even those habits and behaviours that we think are fixed and unchanging and biologically defined are actually very much dynamic, changing and often culturally and pragmatically shaped. Read on to find out how different sleep was 200 years ago.

Sleep would seem to be a fairly constant phenomenon over time. We all need to sleep and we all sleep around about the same amount each night. If you ask most people, they will say they sleep for about 6 to 8 hours a night in one solid block. If you ask them whether they think that this is ‘natural’ the majority will say yes. However, as ‘right’ or as ‘natural’ as our current sleeping patterns may seem, the reality is that there is nothing natural or right about it.

The Western Way to Sleep
In fact, while it may seem like everyone these days is sleeping just as we do the reality is that our style of sleep, the solid 6 to 8 hour block, is very much a Western contrivance, it is the Western Way to Sleep. What is more, it is a modern adaption, in the past we slept much the way many in other parts of the world still do.

The Double Sleep
Alright, enough with the prevarication, you say. You want to know what this ‘other’ way of sleeping is? In the past (and in many non-developed parts of the world today) people used to break their sleep into two blocks. Yes, for most of human history we have slept in two blocks, not one. Each block of sleep would be around four hours, with most people staying awake for an two to four hours in between. This in between waking period was often seen as a good time for those nocturnal arts, such as procreation and pillow talk.

Why The Double Sleep?
The logic behind the double sleep can be seen in human evolution. One of the theories behind why animals sleep is that when it is dark it is not worth the danger of moving around at night. Going to sleep is a good way of staying safe in the dark and minimising the amount of energy that is used. Usually darkness last for between 8 and 12 hours depending on location and time of year. By going to bed earlier and waking in the middle of the night, our ancestors would be in asleep or at least in bed for the whole darkness, thus protecting us from the dangers of moving around at night.

How Did We Rediscover This?
Up until recently few people knew about this Double Sleep phenomenon, other than those who have lived with people that have not integrated fully with our globalised world. The existence of this once common sleep habit was first uncovered professor of History at Virginia Tech by the name of Roger Ekirch. He found references throughout various pieces of literature, as well as court documents, personal papers, and a huge variety of ephemera from the past that all pointed towards a once common and now near forgotten sleeping pattern.

Once he had uncovered this, what became so surprising is not that we used to double sleep, but that we have forgotten how common it used to be. The double sleep was the standard, accepted way to sleep for many thousands of years. It is, in fact, now believed to be the ‘natural’ way to sleep. It is our sleep habit that is unnatural.

Why Change?
So why did we change? What made us go from a double sleep to a single sleep? The answer is easy: electricity. The double sleep was widely practiced around the world right up until the late 1800s. It was only the advent and widespread of the electric light that changed our sleeping habits.

In fact, the invention of the light bulb didn’t just change our sleeping habits, it changed people’s whole lifestyle. Whereas in the past they got home and basically went to bed, they could now arrive home, turn on the lights and spend many hours of leisure doing what they wanted. The electric light brought about a huge upswing in hobbies, in socialising and debating, in how humans lived their lives.

What this meant was that rather than going to bed when the sun went down, as had been common for most of human history, humans would now stay up later. Because they were staying up later, the double sleep was no longer necessary and there was no longer time for it. It seems from the historical record that the transition period between the double sleep and the single sleep was incredibly fast and very widespread.

So Who Still Does It?
While most people around the world have transitioned to the single sleep, there are still some who practice the double sleep. In fact, almost every person of society that lives beyond the globalised world is a double sleeper, it is very much a sign of a pre-modern lifestyle.

What Can We Learn From This?
So what can we learn from this once common and now near forgotten truth? Well for most of us the chances of being able to double sleep are not very high. With work and the other pressures of life it is hard enough getting a solid seven hours a night.

However, we can learn something. What the double sleep tells us is that if we wake in the middle of the night, we should not get too stressed. It is a natural component of our sleep. Just enjoy it, think of something pleasant, like the wonders of electricity and you will soon fall back to sleep.


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