The received wisdom nowadays is that getting 7 or 8 hours of quality sleep per night is vital if your want to maintain good health, but I don’t know many people that actually achieve this ideal. Personally I manage to spend around 7 hours in bed each night but this is only rarely a continuous, unbroken sleep. More usually I wake after between 4 and 6 hours and fall asleep again after a short time awake. I had been beating myself up about this, wondering what changes I could make to enable me to sleep right through the night, but I read a piece in Aeon magazine this week which has revolutionised my thinking on sleep.
Our sleep patterns have altered beyond recognition since the artificial light became widespread. Traditionally, when there was less to do during the hours of darkness, people would spend longer in bed than it is physically possible to spend asleep. The solution was to have two sleeps and a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night which might be spent in conversation, lovemaking, or contemplation. This made me recall an anecdote from Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ in which he had a near miss when a murderous sorcerer infiltrated his jungle camp. His New Guinean friends detected and saw off the intruder without Diamond realising that he was in any danger. He was woken by their animated chatter in the aftermath of the encounter but thought nothing of it, for such nocturnal banter represented normal behaviour among the natives.
It seems that this pattern of two sleeps is a universal human behaviour. The author of the Aeon piece, Karen Emslie, made the case that the state of mind during night time wakefulness is quite distinct from that during the day and that we are poorer for having lost touch with it. She quoted a few examples from Mason Currey’s excellent ‘Daily Rituals’ of people who adopted such a routine and found their creativity greatly enhanced, but did acknowledge that such routines are best suited to freelancers who live alone and can be flexible about their routines.
Probably my natural pattern is to sleep for 5 hours then 3 with a little wakefulness in between. This is what I sometimes do when camping, when long nights dictate that I retire early. A long time ago, when I combined milking cows with an active social life, I successfully managed on an unbroken sleep of 5-6 hrs. It occurs to me now that this was just my first sleep and that I should really have had a followed it with a second sleep or 2 – 3 hrs but instead used caffeine to stave it off.
I am intrigued by the whole two sleep thing and the possibility of accessing previously untapped reserves of creativity. I could start going to bed early, say at 2100, sleep until 0200, work for 2 hrs then sleep again from 0400 to 0700. That would fit 8 hours of sleep into two stints and avoid my current need for massively early rising. This might be effective, but it would be extremely eccentric and would lead to a lot of skulking around in the dark trying not to wake up family members.
A less extreme way to harness this new insight into the nature of sleep would be to abandon my quest for the unbroken 8 hrs and accept that it is normal and natural to sleep in two segments. This change of thinking might allow me to simply be mindful of the fact that I had woken up, rather than attaching any value judgement to it, and this in turn which would increase my chances of falling immediately back to sleep.
Does any of this strike you as reasonable? Or as the ravings of a madman? Feel free to use the comments section to share your own sleep stories or comment on the peculiarity of the views expressed above!