ITEM 1: Everyone knows that insomnia is a common condition of growing old; it just comes with age, like wrinkles.
ITEM 2: We also know that the proper and natural way to get a good night's sleep is to bed down in a dark, dedicated room sometime in the evening either alone or with a spouse, sleep for seven or eight hours straight and wake refreshed in the morning.
Well, not so fast. Item 1 is definitely wrong. Statistics for insomnia are about the same among all age groups. And there is growing evidence that Item 2 has been the “norm” for only the past 200 years or so, and much to our detriment according to a new book.
Back in 2012, I told you about the interesting thesis of British historian Roger Ekirch. Until the invention and widespread use of artificial light in the 19th century, he reported, people in Europe had generally slept in two shifts – first sleep and second sleep.
From Ekirch's book, At Day's Close – Night in Times Past,
”...fragments in several languages...give clues to the essential features of this puzzling pattern of repose.
“Both phases of sleep lasted roughly the same length of time, with individuals waking sometime after midnight before returning to rest...Men and women referred to both intervals as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration...”
“After midnight, pre-industrial households usually began to stir. Many of those who left their beds merely needed to urinate...Some persons, however, after arising, took the opportunity to smoke tobacco, check the time, or tend a fire.”
More evidence for the second sleep idea has emerged since Ekirch's book was published in 2005.
When I first read about this phenomenon five or six years ago, it seemed to explain my difficulty with sleeping: regularly waking after three or four hours and unable to return to sleep for an hour or two or even three sometimes.
It's not a nightly occurrence but happens more often than not. Now and then I try to find ways to sleep through the night but mostly I just live with it. Now I may embrace it. Read on.
However sleeplessness manifests itself from individual to individual, a good night's sleep is widely difficult to achieve and the billions of dollars a year spent by millions of people on physicians, medications, nostrums, self-help books, products and clinics in an effort to get a full night of restful sleep don't help anyone much.
Now, in a new book titled Wild Nights – How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World – Benjamin Reiss, while acknowledging that Ekirch's thesis that electric lights reordered our sense of time and, perhaps, evolutionary rhythms, another at least equal contributor to widespread disordered sleep is the industrial revolution.
Before then, for many centuries in many countries, sleep was a social event involving adults and children together and even visitors:
”For starters, the notion of sleeping in a private bedroom, out of view of strangers or even most other family members, turns out to have shallow roots,” writes Reiss...
“Historian Sasha Handley reveals that even the idea of a 'bedroom,' denoting a room primarily associated with sleep, is rather new.
“Throughout the eighteenth century in England, most homes had rooms with overlapping functions depending on the time of day; and well into the nineteenth century, it was common for travelers to share beds with strangers.”
Reiss writes that along with gas and then electric lighting, the arrival of the railroad with speeds no one in history had experienced before contributed to loss of sleep, he attributes it mostly to the migration of workers from farm to factory.
When employers needed to count on employees arriving on schedule to keep production humming, they even used wake-up bells to rouse the people in the factory towns:
”Time itself became a chief product of the industrial age,” Reiss continues, “and when clock time did not correspond to natural rhythms, artificial lighting could enforce it.
“Despite, or perhaps because of, the factory system's role in creating havoc with sleep schedules, the idea of a standard model for healthful sleep – eight unbroken hours – took hold.”
The change was helped along in no small manner by do-gooders who didn't like adults, children and strangers of both sexes mixing it up all together under one blanket.
Benjamin Reiss explains up front that his goal with his book was to unravel the reasons for our current sleep-obsessed society with ”a blend of literature, the social and medical history of sleep, cross-cultural analysis, and some brief forays into science...”
It is a fascinating read revealing that our current definition of “normal” sleep is far from being so, and our relentless pursuit of that norm may even be a, if not the, culprit in our widespread cultural insomnia.
The story is much more complex than I have space to explain, but below are a few more quotations that may help you, as I have, think about reordering your beliefs about sleep.
And who has more time than retired people who no longer need to waken to an alarm to try out different ways of finding satisfying sleep.
“...those who argue that there is no single way to sleep naturally or correctly give us license to be more forgiving of our own sleep patterns, to stop thinking that there is a 'right' way that we're failing to achieve.”
“...it's arguable that when sleep began to be shut off from social life, walled away behind closed doors, it became less pleasurable, more pressurized, more fragile, and more subject to the vagaries of individual psychology.”
“Other scientific research gives the lie to the notion that humans are wired to sleep the same way every night...
And one more thing:
“...ducks sleep in a row, with the ones on the edges keeping an outer eye open.”
Did you know that? I didn't know that.