The modern assumption that consolidated sleep with no awakening is the normal and correct way for human adults to sleep may lead many people to approach their doctors with complaints of maintenance insomnia or other sleep disorders. If Ekirch's theory is correct, their concerns might best be addressed by assurance that their sleep conforms to historically natural sleep patterns.In last week's issue of The New Yorker, Elisabeth Kolbert's article "The Science of Sleeplessness," also addresses the issue. She reports on studies from the book "The Slumbering Masses" by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Nowadays, Wolf-Meyer says, adults are expected to go to bed around 11pm and stay there until about 7am. Anything else -- napping during the day, sleeping in bursts, waking up in the middle of the night -- is considered unsound and unhealthy.
This didn't use to be the case. Until a century and a half or so ago, Wolf-Meyer observes, "Americans, like other people around the world, used to sleep in an unconsolidated fashion, that is, in two or more periods throughout the day."
They went to bed not long after the sun went down. Four or five hours later, they woke from their "first sleepe" and rattled around -- praying, chatting, smoking, or making love. Eventually they went back to bed for their "second sleepe."
Wolf-Meyer blames capitalism in general and American capitalism in particular for transforming once ordinary behavior into conduct worthy of medication. Today's focus on "seven solid hours of sleep," he says is "largely the product of the industrial workday, which began as a dawn-to-dusk twelve-to-sixteen stretch and shrank to eight hours only at the turn of the twentieth century."
Both of these articles suggest that for the many people who have trouble getting enough sleep between 11pm and 7am, the problem is the sleep pattern itself; people don't naturally follow that pattern.
Tomorrow, I'll report on my lifelong struggle with insomnia and my recent escape from the handcuffs of a "solid seven hours."