Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

The decline in Common Knowledge (4)

12 April 2018


Sometimes facts can still surprise me. I really thought I knew most about human sleeping habits until I read this 2018 Big Think article. I had never ever heard or read anything about a first and second sleep which were, however, common (knowledge) for thousands of years. BBC: “By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness”.

Most nights, I get awake after a 3-4 hours sleep. I use the toilet, go back to bed, and regain my sleep almost immediately. I have no problem completing my consecutive 8 hours of sleep. I did wonder about the Why of these recurring awakenings but just “blamed” my bladder. Many people have similar routines. That should have alerted me but it did not.

BBC: “In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month. It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.”

This biphasic sleeping pattern was evidenced by Roger Ekirch, historian at Virginia Tech, in his 2001 article in The American Historical ReviewSleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles. His 2005 book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past “unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.” BBC

The most obvious questions are: (1) What did people do in between these 2 sleeping shifts? (2) Why did this biphasic sleeping pattern stop? I will start with #2.

The introduction of artificial city lighting in Paris (1667), Amsterdam (1669), and London (1684) changed our views about the night. BBC: “Night became fashionable and spending hours lying in bed was considered a waste of time. “People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th Century,” says Roger Ekirch“.

The absence of artificial (city) lighting meant that people historically slept shortly after dusk. Dusk is “the period of time between sunset and nightfall”, which is early evening nowadays, starting as of 6PM in winter. Nowadays, we use the evening hours for dining, shopping, and/or watching TV.

Big Think, 2018: “People woke up around midnight for a few hours of activity sometimes called “the watching.” They used it for things like praying, chopping wood, socializing with neighbors, and for sex.” Also see 2012 BBC article. 

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” A quite funny quote by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), American novelist and journalist.

Asleep (1985) by The Smiths
artists, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise


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