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A Look Back at Divided Sleep

Did you know that the idea of eight ‘consecutive’ hours of sleep a night is a fairly modern convention? Research published by Roger Ekirch, a professor of History at Virginia Tech, suggests that as recently as the 18th Century, human beings adopted a bi-modal sleep pattern, consisting of a first and second sleep shift.

The divided sleep schedule was documented in literature, court transcripts and private journals. One doctor’s message, referenced in Ekirch’s book “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” claims that the ideal time for study is between ‘first sleep’ and ’second sleep.’

Ekirch’s work shows that after an initial four or hours of sleep, humans would wake-up and spend an hour or so mediating, reading, talking with their bed partners or in some cases engaging in coitus. A reference from a personal letter, also written by a doctor, asserts that the working class have more children because they have sex after their ‘first sleep.’

Ekirch believes the change to a consecutive sleep schedule came about as a reaction to the introduction of streetlights and indoor electrical lights. These two modernizations allowed people to work and socialize later into the night. This limited the time between ‘turning-in’ and the onset of daylight and made the bi-modal system obsolete.

In a time when our whole lives are shared online, over texts and on the phone, it might not hurt society to return to a bi-modal sleep pattern. A little midnight meditation, without our devices, would probably be a refreshing break. But then again, who sleeps further than three feet from their phone, tablet or laptop. We’re sure that bonus hour would be partly spent checking our Facebook.

Regardless, if you do find yourself slipping into a pattern of divided sleep, don’t freak out. It’s worked before and it could work for you. Give it a shot and send us a comment. We’d love to hear if it works.

Sidebar: New parents can disregard this entire post. Your sleep schedule is more akin to a ‘get it while I can‘ pattern. Good luck with that. It does get better…

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