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How our Sleep Pattern changed over time

  • 15 February 2018
  • By Shveta Bhagat

Did you know humans slept differently at different times in history? The introduction of artificial light in the mid 19th century changed the dynamics completely.

According to research, with artificial lighting, man began to sleep later and at one stretch that is also known as “monophasic sleep” unlike earlier when he slept more hours but with breaks, also known as “polyphasic sleep” or biphasic sleep. Polyphasic sleep can still be found in few remaining nomadic or tribal societies.

The fact that before the industrial revolution we were sleeping at short stretches was first discovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech. His research showed how we almost never slept at a stretch. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over the long night and it is suggested that couples would mate in between. In general people would be reading, and often they would use the time to pray. Religious manuals across cultures included special prayers to be said in the mid-sleep hours. Some were more active and were known to even socialize with neighbours at that time. The long night would extend to 12 hours, beginning with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, and then sleep again until morning.

There have been plenty of references across literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past to validate this fact. An English doctor is known to have referred to this pattern in a paper, saying the ideal time for study and contemplation was between “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Geoffrey Chaucer tells of a character in the Canterbury Tales that goes to bed following her “firste sleep.”

Two-piece sleeping was the standard practice and it is believed further into our history we could have possibly slept in even more than two stretches with regular gaps in between.

Just to revisit history, the famous artist Leonardo Da Vinci Da Vinci was famously known to have had an extreme form of a polyphasic sleep schedule called the Uberman sleep cycle, which consists of 20-minute naps every four hours.

This unconventional sleep cycle may have given the artist more wakeful time during his days to paint and get his revolutionary ideas, but it also could have made it difficult for him to work on long-term projects. Inventor Nikola Tesla was also known to follow the Uberman sleep pattern and he credited his achievements to this sleep pattern. 

While life on earth was still governed by the natural cycle of sun, moon and stars and for more than 3 billion years, it all changed with electric light that could turn night into day at a flick of a switch. Our bodies and brains were not ready. They continue to respond best to natural setting with the circadian rhythm (the light-triggered releases of hormones that regulate bodily function) getting disrupted with exposure to artificial light. While we maybe now sleeping at a stretch, scientists believe the sleep quality is no more the same.


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