I was lying awake in the middle of the night, thinking what seemed like great thoughts, when a truly great thought from a sleep scholar intruded on my mind:
Maybe we were meant to sleep like the animals, sleeping more than once every 24 hours.
Wakeful periods of midnight thinking and worrying can be a waste of time. On the other hand, sometimes, if you are lying awake in the peaceful night uninterrupted, you actually can figure out some challenge that has been bugging you. Consequently, lying awake for part of the night almost seems normal to many of us.
And maybe it is.
A clever historian named A. Roger Ekirch has a plausible theory that, like many animals, we are not supposed to do all of our sleeping in one big eight-hour binge each 24 hours. Ekirch learned that, before the Industrial Revolution and before artificial lighting was invented, many humans would routinely sleep a few hours, lie awake for an hour or two and then sleep a few hours more. They had something like nine-hour nights with an hour or so awake in the middle.
Ekirch spent years going through records and diaries from earlier centuries. He repeatedly encountered – in several languages – the terms “first sleep” and “second sleep.” That appears to have been so normal in some cultures that they had names for the two halves of their sleeping.
If he’s correct, we have something in common with other animals. Cats and dogs, for instance. Those critters and many others sleep off and on all night and all day.
The current human practice of aiming for eight solid hours of sleep was apparently less common in earlier generations. Previously, many people in the world came home from terribly hard days, ate and fell exhausted into bed.
But after a few hours, they awakened for an hour or two. They lay there thinking allegedly great thoughts or did household chores or read if they knew how. Or they had sex. Midnight friskiness was apparently one of the most common uses of the time between first sleep and second sleep.
So maybe we weren’t meant to sleep in one big undivided lump of time. Just as a cat is built to cat nap, we are built to rest in two big nightly human naps, with an occasional cat nap or siesta thrown in during the day.
(I found this information in a fascinating new book, “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep” by David K. Randall.)
If segmented sleep is normal for our kind, then the rest of you are lying there snoring through an abnormal straight eight hours of uninterrupted unconsciousness.
Each animal, including humans, has apparently been handed a distinct sleep pattern that it is meant to fulfill. Giraffes sleep in small naps for a total of only about two hours a day. A sloth hangs around fast asleep for 16 hours a day, but only in captivity. In the wild, sloths have been observed sleeping about 10 hours a day.
Perhaps that helps explain why some humans sleep eight continuous hours at a time while the rest of us take a think break in the middle of the night and then sleep a little more. And maybe we midnight thinkers and worriers are following the original sleep directive for our kind.
Whatever your sleep fashion, the world isn’t so dark if you get enough sack time. But it wouldn’t hurt if some clever scientist discovers a way to give us a few cat genes. Maybe it would be a step down to think like the animals, but we would find life more restful if we could sleep like them.Bill Hall can be contacted at email@example.com or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501