One out of every three people reports struggling with insomnia.
They lie awake at night, unable to drift off to sleep. Or, they suffer from something called maintenance insomnia, which means that they can’t maintain a state of slumber. They’ll wake up in the middle of the night and find that it takes them hours to fall back to bed.
This sleepless period often induces stress and worry as the sufferer thinks about how tired they’ll be the next day and how they wish they could just get some rest and stay asleep through the night like normal people.
It turns out that these wakeful periods in the middle of the night might not be abnormal after all. In looking at the history of human sleep, documented evidence shows that from the beginning of time, our rest was divided into periods. This practice is known as biphasic or segmented sleep, and it might be the most natural and healthy way to get our z’s.
History of Ancient Human Sleep
The absence of a bright night sky and the threat of predators meant that our Neolithic ancestors (around 10,200 BCE) went to bed a couple of hours after dusk. What makes this group different from our Paleolithic predecessors during the Stone Age is that this cohort tried to make their bedtime space more habitable. The heaps of straw that used to serve as beds began to be replaced by raised surfaces.
Technology continued to advance but at a slow rate. Archeologists have discovered ancient sleeping abodes that were circular and more like nests than beds. The circular shape of these makeshift beds suggests that the fetal position was most preferred.
1300s – 1600s
As we enter the middle ages, sanitation became an issue. Monty Python’s comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail described conditions as “damp, smoked out, and filthy.” Even the wealthy lived in smelly filth as populations exploded and the crowded living areas had no plumbing.
Some cultures, however, had begun to explore the idea of more comfortable sleeping arrangements. Bedframes with stuffed mattresses became common. Early materials were straw and down made nights more peaceful.
Known for its art and societal advances, the Renaissance period experienced a revolution. The rough cloth and straw mattresses were now covered with velvet and silk, which added an air of luxury.
Earlier references had been made to the idea of biphasic sleep (Homer’s Odyssey, for example), but now mentions began to show up in more literary works. It was considered a regular habit among civilization during this time to have a first and second rest period during the night while experiencing a peaceful waking segment in between.
Instead of feeling concern over being awake during the middle of the night, citizens would use this time for prayer, reflection, sex, chores, reading by candlelight and visiting friends.
Long working days and regimented factory schedules meant that people could no longer enjoy a leisurely period of rest between sleeping sessions. Instead, for efficiency, they began compressing their shuteye into a single cycle (you can learn more about the cycle and its 5 stages here).
With the advent of publicly lit streets and the invention of electricity, urban residents and the upper classes have shifted away from a biphasic schedule. They’re beginning to become more conscious of the passage of time and the efficiency that should be afforded during waking hours. Doctors started recommending a single session of slumber instead of two distinct periods.
By the 1920s all reference to a biphasic or segmented schedule have entirely ceased.
Why Ancient People Engage in Biphasic Sleep
In the absence of artificial light, most people naturally revert to a biphasic routine. This was shown by a psychologist, Thomas Wehr, who restricted the light his human subjects received to a 10-hour period, followed by 14 hours of darkness.
After a brief, 4-week adjustment period, the study participants developed a sleep pattern that had two distinct segments that were broken up by a period of wakefulness that lasted from one to three hours.
It’s believed that in modern society the pros of this schedule allow for more flexibility. And, considering that people with maintenance insomnia may sleep like this naturally, it may be beneficial for them to stop trying to fight a regimented monophasic schedule.
Another type of biphasic sleep involves a more extended rest period at night but includes a nap during the day. Several modern cultures follow this schedule, including countries in Latin America and Europe. The biggest pro of this routine is that it allows people to nap during the afternoon when the after-lunch energy dip occurs.
Traditional biphasic sleeping may not be conducive to most people’s schedules because it requires going to bed soon after dusk. Many work-related and family obligations require that individuals stay up later and rise at an hour that allows them to get to work on time.
While some people have enough flexibility to adhere to a routine like this, they may find that biphasic sleeping leaves them feeling fatigued. In cases like this, a monophasic schedule is probably best for them.
Frequently Asked Questions
What did humans sleep on before beds?
Before the days of Tempur-Pedic and Casper, humans slept on makeshift sleeping surfaces like piles of straw. As society advanced, primitive mattresses were fashioned out of stuffed fabrics, and down was introduced. Bedframes came much later, but have still been around since the Egyptian era.
What did cavemen sleep on?
Cavemen slept on the floor of their caves. Sometimes, they would construct a pile of straw and leaves in the pit of a cave to make a recessed and cozy sleeping surface. Later, they realized that a raised surface would be beneficial to avoid insects, and they began fashioning their piles on top of elevated structures within the cave.
Is segmented sleep healthy?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. Some doctors suggest that this type of rest is the most natural for our biological processes, which makes it also the healthiest. Other doctors argue that in today’s modern society, it’s not practical and can be destructive. The time between first and second sleep could be polluted by smartphones and obligations that make falling asleep the second time an insurmountable challenge.
Our recommendation is to see if this type of schedule will work for you. Gauge how you feel and make sure you’re getting the recommended seven to nine hours of shuteye within a 24-hour period.
Though most people aren’t aware of biphasic sleep, knowing that this type of schedule is normal may be incredibly helpful for those who wake up in the middle of the night and worry about not being able to fall back asleep.
Instead of stressing out on missed bedtime hours, try meditating, prayer or even an intimate session with your partner to calm your nerves. Resist the urge to dial up your friends, though, unless you know for a fact that they’ll also be awake.
Sources and References:
- The myth of the eight-hour sleep – bbc.com