Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You


The science of sleep has been studied for a very long time, and it is without a doubt a very controversial subject. Normal sleeping cycle recommendations suggest that we stay up during the day and sleep at night for 7 to 8 hours. However, this traditional approach to sleep has been challenged by some pretty solid historical and scientific evidence. Is the 8 hour sleep cycle a socially constructed myth? Are we truly meant to go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 6am?

What do the Research and Science Say?

Recently, the BBC featured a psychiatrist by the name of Thomas Wehr, who conducted an experiment in the 1990’s. In the experiment, he took a group of subjects and put them in the dark room for 14 hours each day for a trial that lasted a whole month. Eventually, their sleep schedule started to regulate, and the end result was two distinct 4 hour periods of sleep. These two 4-hour chunks of sleep were divided by a time where the subjects would be awake for 1 to 2 hours before they would fall asleep once again.

Now, 20 years later the notion of sleep the “traditional” way is still prominent. Most people think that 8 hours of consecutive sleep is the ideal and healthy pattern for all of us. However, additional research has shown that throughout our history, rarely has sleeping for 8 straight hours been the norm.

Is Sleeping For 8 Straight Hours Good For You?

A historian at Virginia Tech by the name of Roger Ekirch published a book titled Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. This book was the culmination of years of historical research that provided a vast amount of evidence that humans historically slept in two distinct chunks of time. There are a litany of historical references including special prayers, a doctor’s manual from 16th century France, diaries, and multiple types of historical records. They refer to a “first and second sleep” as a common and normal occurrence.

Today, the idea of a first and second sleep sounds foreign to most people. (Except maybe new parents!) Modern conventional wisdom exalts the importance of eight solid hours every night. Ekirch found that the idea of two separate sleep cycles per day began to disappear during the late 17th century.

This makes sense when you think about it from a historical perspective. Think of all the technological and social changes that took place around the globe during the 1700’s and beyond. It makes sense that people would be more inclined to sleep once through the night instead of being up during the middle of the night. The advent of street lighting, or even the persecution during the Reformation era which gave cause for activists to meet at night would contribute to the slow disappearance of this sleep cycle theory.

At The End Of The Day

So what does this mean? Well, if you’re waking up during the middle of the night, perhaps you shouldn’t ignore traditional wisdom and make use of the time productively. Instead of trying to take a sleeping pill, or watch Netflix, try fixing yourself a tea and opening a good book. Or try to relax with a soothing essential oil blend. The middle of the night might just be a good time for reflection and thought without the distractions that come in our daily lives.

What are your sleep patterns? Have they changed over time? Please share in the comments below!