Dr Neil Stanley Independent Sleep Expert
BACK It seems somewhat perverse that Ekirch does not reference his own book or his original paper here. Massachusetts General Hospital Neurology — Sleep Center: Frequently Asked Questions’ It is clear that they did not come to this conclusion based on any research merely an uncritical acceptance of the premise of Ekirch’s book. "Should sleep happen in one solid block? Many people believe that they should sleep "straight through" the night, without waking up. In reality, sleep is never continuous when measured objectively. A recent historical account of sleep presented strong evidence that until very recently, most people slept in two blocks at night, separated by about an hour or so of quiet waking time in the middle of the night (Ekirch: At Day's Close: Night in Times Past). In fact, some experiments show that splitting sleep into four quarters spread through the day is no different than an 8 hour block. When sleep is measured with electroencephalography (EEG), we see that the brain awakens for at least 15 seconds between 10-20 times in a given night, but only a small fraction of these reach conscious awareness and are remembered the next day. If we consider EEG arousals, which are awakenings between 3-15 seconds, there may be 10-15 awakenings per hour of sleep, even among those who think they are sleeping through the night! Sliver of truth:It is true that multiple awakenings noticed by a patient can be a hint that something is disturbing sleep. What is the line about ‘fooling some of the people some of the time’ below is just a small number of the uncritical, unquestioning people who have made reference to Ekirch’s work without adding a single original idea. “And I have found evolutionary and historical precedent for my sleep cycles. Just the other day I spoke with Roger Ekirch, a Virginia Tech historian who has focused on sleep in Western cultures and has written At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. He told me that in the preindustrial era, before the proliferation of modern lighting, people routinely used to wake from their ‘first sleep’ sometime after midnight to talk with others, smoke a pipe, rob the nearby orchard or bring in the cows. After about an hour, he said, people returned to bed for their ‘second sleep’ until dawn. ‘It makes perfect sense if you accept the premise that segmented sleep was the dominant form of slumber before the Industrial Revolution,’ Ekirch said. ‘It makes perfect sense that a biological pattern since time immemorial would not relinquish its hold easily, that it would not fade rapidly into the mists of history. The process instead would be prolonged and erratic. Consolidated sleep is an artificial invention of modern life.’” – Laura Hambleton, “An Insomniac Learns to Make the Most of Getting the Least Sleep,” The Washington Post, February 14, 2011 “But what’s interesting is that in some of the research that’s come out, particularly Roger Ekirch’s book, his  history of the night, he talks about before the invention of electric light, people slept in segmented sleep. They could sleep for a few hours, they’d be up for several hours, and then they’d be – fall back asleep again. So in many respects that sleep pattern is fairly natural.”  –Patricia Morrisroe, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” May 4, 2010 “But is insomnia a modern problem? Are we sleeping less than we used to? Did people in prehistoric and ancient times really crash with the sunset and sleep til the cocks crowed? Is the prescribed eight hours a construct to suit industrial times? In his 2005 ground-breaking book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, American historian Roger Ekirch documented how humans slept through the ages — but not necessarily through the night. ‘He said that people slept in segmented sleep,’’ says [Patricia] Morrisroe. ‘They’d fall asleep for a couple of hours. They’d get up. They might talk. They might have sex with their bedfellows as there were often multiple people in beds because they often had communal beds. They’d pray. They would analyze their dreams. Maybe some would go out and steal livestock. Then they would go back to sleep. So this concept of segmented sleep may be very natural to us.’’’ –Antonia Zerbislas, Toronto Star, May 1, 2010 “Ekirch relates, in perhaps his most fascinating revelation, pre-industrial man slept a segmented sleep. He has found more than 500 references, from Homer onwards, to a ‘first sleep’ that lasted until maybe midnight, and was followed by ‘second sleep’. In between the two, people routinely got up, peed, smoked, read, chatted, had friends round, or simply reflected on the events of the previous day – and on their dreams. (Plenty also had sex, by all accounts far more satisfactorily than at the end of a hard day’s labouring. Couples who copulated ‘after the first sleep, wrote a 16th-century French doctor, ‘have more enjoyment, and do it better’.)  Experiments by Dr Thomas Wehr at America’s National Institute of Mental Health appear to bear out the theory that this two-part slumber is man’s natural sleeping pattern: a group of young male volunteers deprived of light at night for weeks at a time rapidly fell into the segmented sleep routine described in so many of Ekirch’s documentary sources. It could even be, Wehr has theorised, that many of today’s common sleeping disorders are essentially the result of our older, primal habits “breaking through into today’s artificial world.’” –Jon Henley, “The Dark Ages,” The Guardian (London), October 24, 2009 “But is it possible that such expectations are too much – that there never was such thing as a great night’s sleep? In pre-industrial Europe, for example, sleeping for eight consecutive hours wasn’t normal, American historian Roger Ekirch says. While in Britain to research his 2005 book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, he discovered what he calls ‘segmented sleep.’ ‘The consolidated, seamless sleep we enjoy today was not the norm in the 19th century,’ he says on the phone from Virginia Tech, where he teaches. ‘There is no idyllic past in terms of sleep.’ Instead, people slept for two to three hours, surrounded by braying animals, people emitting terrible smells, and other environmental disturbances. They awoke at midnight for one or two hours, and then settled back down for a second ‘dawn’ slumber. In the interval, people stoked the fire, made love, prepared the next day’s meal, stole apples from the neighbours, prayed, meditated or reflected upon their dreams. ‘Basically, they did anything and everything imaginable,’ Prof. Ekirch says with a chuckle. His findings resonate with those of scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington D.C., who have conducted clinical research into segmented sleep and found that, without the interference of artificial light, many people naturally slept in two hases.‘Insomniacs may simply be experiencing this pre-industrial, once-dominant pattern of sleep,’ Prof. Ekirch says.” –The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Nov. 15, 2008 “But to alter and really shake up our expectations – as one might renew a flattened eiderdown – we need the historian   Roger Ekirch to come to our aid. He explains (in At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime) that before the industrial revolution, it was the norm for people to sleep in two parts (a sort of sleep sandwich). In the middle – the filling – all manner of things went on. ‘Families rose to urinate, smoke tobacco, and even visit close neighbours. Many others made love, prayed, and, most important, historically, reflected on their dreams, a significant source of solace and self-awareness.’ It is an upbeat idea: the night as opportunity. But it is easier to imagine than to achieve.” – Kate Kellaway, “Is Anxiety about Sleep Keeping Us All Awake?,” The Observer (London), April 27, 2008 . . fascinating historical and scientific research that challenges the consensus view of sleep as a continuous, consolidated 8-hour block of time. When University of Virginia [Virginia Tech] historian A. Roger Ekirch began researching sleep in pre-industrial societies he was surprised by hundreds of references to something called “first sleep” and a second or “morning sleep.” It seems as though before the advent of mass artificial lighting – with its attendant suite of late-night consumption opportunities – much of the Western world slept in two sections: once in the early evening, and once more in the early morning. In between our ancestors woke for several hours to a curious state of consciousness that had no name, other that the generic “watch” or “watching.” Ekirch’s historical evidence aligns with scientific findings from the respected National Institutes of Health chronobiologist Thomas Wehr. For one month Wehr had a group of volunteers spend the full duration of a 14-hour winter’s night in bed. Every one of the volunteers lapsed into a segmented sleep pattern. Although it took a succession of long winter nights to provoke this kind of sleep, when Wehr published his findings he speculated that segmented sleep may be the default physiological pattern for humans in general – certainly it matched similar patterns observed in modern forager cultures.” –Jeff Warren, Huffington Post, April 25, 2008 “Research by Professor Ekirch revealed that in pre-industrial times, before electricity and gaslights, people typically slept in two bouts of four hours.  There would be a gap of wakefulness in-between lasting about two hours.  A similar result was found by sleep researchers in the nineties at the National Institute of Mental Health, when people were exposed to light that mimicked natural variations of day and night.  So it may be comforting to know that your experience may not necessarily be abnormal, but possibly a remnant of normal mammalian evolution.  Indeed some animals like chimpanzees and giraffes are reported to share the same sleep patterns.”  – Neel Halder, M.D., Royal College of Psychiatry, Manchester Evening News, March 3, 2008 “In ancient times, according to two recent histories of sleep, people probably slept no better than we insomniacs – they woke frequently to tend their animals or children, all snorting and snoring in the same sleeping space. Night was often a ghastly time. In some societies, sleep was broken into two four-hour shifts, with singing or other activities in-between. So people who wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep easily may be reverting to ancient patterns. ‘It’s the seamless sleep we aspire to that’s the anomaly, the creation of the modern world,’ Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close, told The New York Times recently.” –Adele Horin, “Unravel the Sleeve of Care for a Decent Night’s Sleep,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 23, 2008 “In a provocative article last year in Applied Neurology, Dr. Walter Brown reviews historical descriptions of pre-industrial sleep and suggests that sleeping in two nightly shifts separated by an hour or two of quiet wakefulness is completely normal.  I encourage you to read it.  He proposes that the advent of inexpensive artificial light allowed us to stay awake long after sundown and has led us to be so chronically sleep deprived that we usually sleep for 7 uninterrupted hours nightly.  This uninterrupted sleep pattern has now become the new norm.  When our natural pattern of sleeping in two shifts reasserts itself, we find it abnormal and distressing.  We are sure something is wrong, and a whole industry has sprung up to reinforce our anxiety and help us sleep the way we think we should. Our expectations about our bodies go a long way toward shaping what symptoms we find distressing and what we ignore.  Many patients are quite alarmed about entirely normal symptoms and refuse to be reassured.  But patients alone are not to be blamed.  Many forces have pushed modern medicine to pathologize normal symptoms.  After all, pharmaceutical companies sell prescriptions, not reassurance.” –Albert Fuchs, M.D., Beverly Hills, California, Dec. 13, 2007, http://www.albertfuchs.com “There seems little doubt that our sleep patterns have changed over the centuries, partly in response to technology. Research by Virginia Tech history professor A. Roger Ekirch suggests most western Europeans before the industrial revolution enjoyed ‘segmented sleep’ – they woke midway through the night to reflect on their dreams, smoke tobacco and even visit neighbours.” –Peter Barber, “Snooze Function,” Financial Times (London), May 25, 2007 “Segmented or fragmented sleep appears in early times to have been the rule rather than exception, writes the American writer Walter Brown in a fascinating article in Scientific American Mind (January 2007). He cites the research of the historian Roger Ekirch, who in early literature discovered that before the invention of gaslight and electricity, most people in the evening and at night slept in two episodes. They called the episodes “first sleep” and “second sleep”. In effect, most people after sunset went to sleep for four hours and then woke up. They stayed awake a few hours and then went to sleep for four hours until sunrise.  What did they do in the dark night hours? Everything, according to the literature. Household tasks that could be done by candlelight. Talk. Sometimes they even went to visit others. The hours were also often used for prayer, contemplation and reflection on the dreams of the first sleep. . . . Many people [today] awake in the middle of the night and then lie and worry about their loss of sleep. They try desperately to get back to sleep and even swallow sleeping pills to sleep through the night. Maybe they should do what their ancestors did: early to bed, awaken to do something useful or pleasant, and after a few hours go back to bed for the second sleep.” – Elsevier (Amsterdam), March 14, 2007  A recent discovery and a reexamination of some classic sleep literature suggest that for some people the perfect eight hours of sleep remains elusive for a very simple reason: our need for such uninterrupted slumber may be nothing but a fairy tale. The source of this new assault on conventional thinking comes not from a drug company lab or a university research program but from a historian.” –Walter A. Brown, “Ancient Sleep in Modern Time,” Scientific American Mind, December 2006/January 2007 “Recently I had reason to think about varieties of sleep and dreams – historians’ dreams of the past, writers’ dreams of their subject, dreamers in the past. The occasion was a conference that included sleep researchers in neuroscience; and the inspiration was a marvelous essay on the history of sleep by the early modern historian A. Roger Ekirch. It’s not a subject that comes naturally. Ekirch points out historians’ generic preference for vigorous actors: ‘our entire history is only the history of waking men’. . . . Ekirch explicates this historical ‘bias’ in favour of active, animated protagonists and against dull sleepers: ‘Whereas our waking hours are animated, volatile, and highly differentiated, sleep appears, by contrast,  passive, monotonous, and uneventful’”. –Christine Stansell, History Workshop Journal, Autumn 2006 “The study fits what may be an ancient human pattern, according to findings of historian A. Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. “The dominant pattern in the Western world until the Industrial Revolution was not seamless sleep, but segmented sleep,” he says. Diaries and literary references going back to Homer referred to ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep,’ each about four hours. In between, in the dark of night, people would talk, use the chamber pot, slap at fleas and lice, be on the alert for predators and have sex, he says.  Most people’s real lives no longer allow for that human pattern of natural sleep.”  – Susan Brink,  “After You Close Your Eyes,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2006 “Before the invention of the electric light and the normalization of clock time, humans slept quite differently.  In a review of Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, David Wooton notes how the sleep of our ancestors was divided each night into two separate periods.  After the “first” sleep people woke, read, talked, prayed, made love and so on.  Wooton observes that ‘everyone knew the difference between first and second sleep, and no-one expected to sleep right through.’  By contrast, our own sleep, mediated by artificial rhythms and technological stimulation, all too often requires medicinal or narcotic supplements to get us through the night.” – Simon Cooper, Arena Magazine (Victoria, Australia), June-July, 2006 “Everyone who reads and writes about Ekirch’s book seems very taken by his re-discovery of the fact that our notion of one continuous, seamless nighttime sleep (leaving our people in our pictures and our teddy bears free to play in peace) is just a modern trend and an artificial, unnatural imposition against the wills of our bodies and minds.” – I. Warden, “Warden’s World,” Canberra Times, June 30, 2006 “One of the many revelations in A. Roger Ekirch’s historical investigation of night-time, At Day’s Close, is the demonstration that until the modern age, segmented sleep was more common than the straight eight- hour stretch.  Premoderns used to go to bed at nightfall for their “first sleep,” then rise again around or after midnight for a tenebral intermezzo of reading, talking, sex, or, if they were unlucky, household chores, before retiring again for another few hours of slumber.” – Harry Eyres, Financial Times, May 13, 2006 “So here’s a question: Is the proverbial good night’s sleep really the Holy Grail of human well-being? In his 2005 book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, historian A.Roger Ekirch said no. He argued that the transition from old-fashioned “segmented sleep” to today’s continuous sleep pattern hasn’t helped mankind. ‘There is every reason to believe that segmented sleep, such as many wild animals exhibit, had long been the natural pattern of our slumber before the modern age, with a provenance as old as humankind,’ Ekirch wrote. Up until the invention of artificial lighting, he noted, men and women went to bed earlier and woke up in the middle of the night to smoke a pipe, make love, or analyze their dreams. Now we sleep when we want to and fitfully, at best.” – Alex Beam, “Perchance to Sleep,” Boston Globe, April 10, 2006 “Sleep patterns around the world have undergone a revolution over the past two centuries as the spread of artificial lighting profoundly changed the shape of human lives, first in cities and now even in many remote villages. Throughout most of history sundown brought an end to the activities in most homes, with people crawling into bed soon afterwards. A. Roger Ekirch—author of a magisterial history of nighttime, At Day’s Close (Norton)— argues that the very nature of a night’s rest has changed since the Industrial Revolution. Sleep for our ancestors was often divided into two shifts of roughly four hours, with a period of wakefulness lasting an hour or longer in between. A study conducted by the U.S. government’s National Institute of Mental Health appears to confirm Ekirch’s thesis.” – Jay Walljasper, Ode Magazine, November 2005 “Ekirch’s research on nighttime led to the surprising discovery, laid out in his recent book, At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past, about humanity’s frequent nightly pastime, sleep.  Ekirch learned that, before artificial light, humans had a “first sleep” of two to three hours, followed by a one- to two-hour long period of wakefulness and then several more hours of sleep. He found references to this pattern of segmented or broken sleep in numerous references, even the Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey. ‘So it was for hundreds, probably thousands of years,’ he said. ‘Beginning in the late 17th century, segmented slumber gradually grew less common’ with the increasing popularity of artificial illumination and a goal of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.  This ‘altered circadian rhythms as old as humanity itself.’” – A.J. Hostetler, “Is the Nighttime Losing its Identity,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 28, 2005 “But surely sleep itself, when it did come, was just like our sleep, wasn’t it? In one of the most fascinating sections of a fascinating book, Ekirch demonstrates how differently our forebears slept their eight hours a night. After “breeches-off” time, the “customary term for nine o’ clock in parts of Germany,” the sleepers fell into their ‘first sleep,’ which usually lasted till midnight or so. Then they roused to urinate, have sex, mull over their dreams and share intimate conversation with their spouses. The educated might use the time to read and study by candlelight, while farmers might check on their livestock and women might get up to ‘rock the cradle, also to card and comb wool, to patch and to wash, to rub flax and reel yarn and peel rushes.’ Others, industrious after a different fashion, found it a good time to slip out and poach game, steal firewood, rob orchards and perhaps practice magic. Most people, though, probably talked a while, performed a task or two, and then slipped into their ‘second sleep’ till cock-crow. This two-part pattern of sleep is, Ekirch says, still typical in the part of the world where artificial light has not arrived.” – Andrew Hudgins, “Laughter in the Dark,” Raleigh News & Observer, July 31, 2005 “A wonderful section, for example, describes the practice of segmented sleep: before the industrial age, people often slept for a few hours after dinner, then woke after midnight to engage in restful contemplation and prayer, conversation or sex, and then resumed sleeping until daybreak. ‘Regenerate man finds no time so fit to raise his soul to Heaven, as when he awakes at mid-night,’ wrote the author of ‘Mid- Night Thoughts” in 1682.’” – Gideon Lewis-Kraus, New York Times, July 24, 2005 “The discussion of sleep patterns is especially interesting. ‘There is every reason to believe that segmented sleep, such as many wild animals exhibit, had long been the natural pattern of our slumber before the modern age, with a provenance as old as humankind,’ Ekirch writes. People went to bed early and awoke around midnight. Some got up for awhile; most probably lay in bed thinking, dozing, or talking with their bedmate, before falling asleep for another four hours or so. This interval of wakefulness may have boosted birth rates among the laboring classes, Ekirch says.” –Fritz Lanham, “Nighttime as Fright Time,” Houston Chronicle, June 26, 2005 “Perhaps the strangest revelation of Ekirch’s book is the fact that our forebears, far from enjoying a dark night’s sleep uninterrupted by neighbours’ security lights or car alarms, found themselves prey, not only to shouts of ‘murder’ in the streets and fears of thieves or the more spectral intruders of their imaginations, but also to waking regularly at midnight – their rest being separated into ‘first sleep” and “second sleep’. It was a habitual but natural division of the night which only modern lighting would change (by keeping us awake until late), and it is just one of the many facts in this engrossing book that illuminate the darker recesses of the past.” –Philip Hoare, Sunday Telegraph (London), June 19, 2005 “We no longer sleep as nature intended us to – in two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of wakefulness, asserts Ekirch. In the older age more attuned to inner clocks, not only was sleep segmented but that fragmentation of sleep made us more responsive to the our subconscious, he aver; people apparently awoke after midnight and, instead of tossing and turning, they regularly got up to talk, study, pray and do chores. The historian has dug up literary and epistolary references to the so-called first sleep or primo somno and the second sleep, which is sometimes referred to as ‘morning sleep’. Worse, he warns that by substituting this episodic sleep with a shorter, seamless slumber, we have committed a crime against nature. “By turning night into day,” he writes, “modern technology has helped to obstruct our oldest path to the human psyche.” –Lola Chantal, “Is ‘Wakeful’ Sleep More Soulful?” Economic Times (Mumbai), May 30, 2005 “Strikingly, [Ekirch] addresses at length the once commonly accepted notion of “first sleep,” an initial and distinct period of deep and restful sleep that was fully expected to be followed by an interval of wakefulness before the remainder of the night’s sleep, referred to as “second sleep” or “morning sleep.” This pattern of sleep was widely recognized, as is demonstrated by Ekirch’s compendious list of medical, literary, and popular sources referencing the term in English, French, and Italian from before the 13th century through the 19th century. This was considered a normal and unproblematic sleep pattern. There is no particular mention in print of waking in the middle of the night as undesirable or pathologic. Quite the contrary, Ekirch located scores of references in journals and diaries to the peacefulness and meditative appeal of this waking period.” –Oskar G. Jenni and Bonnie B. O’Connor, “Children’s Sleep: An Interplay between Culture and Biology,” Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, January 2005 “Studies of Western Europeans by historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg show that “segmented sleep” was a common practice of rural and urban people 200 years ago.” – Tim Batchelder, “The Cultural Biology of Sleep,” Townshend Letter for Doctors and Patients, July 2002 “But there is magic, too, in the unlit night, a loosening of the temporal and physical boundaries that bind us by day.  Ekirch uncovered multiple references to ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’ in historical records; he theorizes that once we slept in two roughly equal interludes, split by a period of quiet wakefulness in which dreams were contemplated and prayers offered.  This creative window closed gradually during the 19th century, as gas lamps became common and human sleep patterns consolidated.” – Kate Terwilliger, Denver Post, April 6, 2001 “One of Ekirch’s discoveries surprised him: in the pre-electric centuries, people slept differently. We assume it is normal to slumber more or less continuously through the night. We think of wakefulness as a disorder–insomnia. And common sense suggests that, without electric lights, our preindustrial ancestors must have slept from sunset to sunrise. But Ekirch has found that was not so. Preindustrial people’s sleep was segmented. They might lie an hour or more before falling asleep. About four hours later, they would awaken. For another hour or so, they would lie meditating on their dreams or praying. They would talk with bedmates. They might even visit neighbors, similarly awake. They might pilfer or poach. Then they would sleep another four hours or so. People, as a matter of course, routinely referred to their first sleep and their second sleep.” –Joyce and Richard Wolkomir, Smithsonian, January 2001 “Our ancestors, living before electric lighting, probably didn’t get that sleep all at once. Waking with the sun and retiring for the day when darkness fell, they had plenty of time in bed, and historian A. Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech has found that they slept in two segments. References as far back as Virgil and Homer called it ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep.’ In between was an hour or two of quiet wakefulness that our ancestors sometimes called ‘the watch.’ It was a time to ponder dreams and plot wars.” – Susan Brink, “Sleepless Society,” U.S. New and World Report, October 8, 2000. “In other times, what is more, people may have slept differently. Roger Ekirch, a history professor at Virginia Polytechnic in the US, is currently finishing a book about nocturnal British life between 1500 and 1850. He has discovered ‘hundreds’ of references, he says, in people’s diaries and letters and court statements, to sleeping routines that now sound quite alien. ‘Most households,’ he says, ‘experienced a pattern of broken sleep.’ People went to bed at nine or 10. They awakened after midnight, after what they called their ‘first sleep’ stayed conscious for an hour, and then had their ‘morning sleep’. The interlude was a haven for reflection, remembering dreams, having sex, or even night-time thievery. The poorest, Ekirch says, were the greatest beneficiaries, fleetingly freed from the constraints and labours that ruled their daytime existence. By the 17th century, as artificial light became more common, the rich were already switching to the more concentrated – and economically efficient – mode of recuperation that we follow today. The industrial revolution pushed back the dusk for everyone except pockets of country-dwellers.” –Andy Beckett, Guardian, August 10, 1999 BACK
© Dr. Neil Stanley 2013-2018