We Need 8 Hours of Uninterrupted Sleep, Right?

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Conventional Wisdom always gets an eyebrow raise from me. I can’t help it. Eventually, I take an honest look at whatever the experts are saying, but skepticism gets first dibs. I’d call it an instinct if it weren’t learned behavior from years of being burned. For example, I once took to task the most pervasive “truth” around: that everyone needs to drink eight glasses of water a day or risk kidney failure, toxin buildup, bladder cancer, and debilitating constipation. It was pretty easy to do.

But it’s not all BS. Smoking is bad for you, for example. See? I can admit when they’re right!

I wonder about the CW position on sleep, though. We generally agree on the recommended duration of sleep. “About eight solid hours” is what you’ll see everywhere, from official governmental health guides to paleo nutrition blogs (I’m sure there’s some niche community out there claiming to have “transcended” sleep, though). I’m not going to argue with around eight hours, but note the use of “solid.” What does it connote?

Unbroken. Monophasic. Constant. Actually, it both connotes and denotes these things. Solid sleep is good sleep, right? And solid sleep means sleeping for about eight hours without waking. If you wake up, you’ve got a problem. Right?

Maybe not.

For most of human history, nighttime meant darkness. Not the blueish whitish permaglow from storefronts, billboards, and headlights enjoyed by modern city-goers. Not the yellow-orange bath radiating down from street lamps on quiet suburban streets, so ubiquitous that you only notice them when they go out. I’m talking about real, permeating darkness. Camping darkness. Small country road with the car lights out darkness. For our ancestors as recently as a couple hundred years ago, this kind of nighttime darkness lasted up to fourteen hours (well, it does today, too, but we mask it with all that lighting and housing). Artificial lighting meant candles and firewood, and those cost (money or time) and don’t really replace daylight (anyone who’s stifled yawns around a campfire knows that) like today’s artificial lighting replaces daylight. People got to bed earlier — because, unless you’re rich enough to burn candles all night, what else are you going to do when it’s dark everywhere but, as Thomas Middleton said, “sleepe, feed, and fart?” — and their sleep was biphasic, or broken up into two four hour segments, with the first beginning about two hours after nightfall.

The first segment of biphasic sleep was called “first sleep” or “deep sleep,” while the second was called “second sleep” or “morning sleep.” Numerous records of these terms persist throughout preindustrial European archival writings, while the concept of two sleeps is common in traditional cultures across the globe. Separating “first sleep” from “second sleep” was an “hour or more” of gentle activity and wakefulness. People generally didn’t spend this time online gaming or surfing the web or trolling the fridge for snacks; instead, they used it to pray, meditate, chat, or to simply just lie there and ruminate on life, the universe, and everything. It was still dark out so they tended to keep it pretty mellow. Sounds nice, huh?

Robert Louis Stevenson liked the idea, too. Sleep historian (awesome-sounding job!) Roger Ekirch writes of Stevenson who, in the fall of 1878, while trekking through the French highlands on foot, alone, made a remarkable discovery. As anyone who backpacks or spends time outdoors will corroborate, Stevenson found himself drifting off to sleep shortly after sunset. He awoke around midnight, smoked a cigarette, and, only after “enjoying an hour’s contemplation,” fell back asleep. That hour, that “one stirring hour” moved him; Stevenson had never before experienced a “more perfect hour.” He had awoken not because of an interloper, a night terror, or any other external actor, but because of what he later described as a “wakeful influence [that] goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere” and is unknown to “those who dwell in houses.”

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