The Myth of the 8 Hours of Sleep
Tell the truth now. Does anybody really get eight hours of sleep? Eight full hours of deep uninterrupted sleep? Truth be told, not many people have that luxury, and experts say it’s largely a myth that we even need that much sleep.
Sleep specialists and social historians say we humans haven’t always slept 8 continuous hours every night, or even thought we needed that much sleep. In the past, they say people slept in short shifts of 2 to 3 hours at a stretch, and found different things to do in between sleep shifts.
In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.
His book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, reveals hundreds of historical references to a segmented sleeping pattern – in personal diaries, court records, medical books and literature from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.
These references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by a waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep. Ekirch says what is striking is that segmented sleep was the norm. It was the way everybody slept.
During waking periods many people would get out of bed, go to the toilet, get a smoke, or even visit neighbors. Some would stay in bed anyway to read, write, have sex, or pray. Prayer books from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps. Medical books of the time said the waking night time hours were the best time for conceiving children.
Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear in the late 17th Century. By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had disappeared from our social consciousness.
Still, modern medicine says something must be wrong with us if we’re not getting 8 hours of sleep. Ekirch says the idea that we must sleep in one long stretch could be harmful if it makes us wake up feeling anxious about it, which just keeps us awake and seeps into our waking and working hours as well.
Despite all this evidence, most doctors won’t acknowledge that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural, and even causes problems for their patients.
So the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, think of your pre-industrial era ancestors and relax. Lying awake could be good for you. Just get up and find something to do with this extra time.