If you work yourself into a frenzy for tossing and turning at 3am, please stop. While there’s a wealth of literature that discusses the importance of prioritising deep sleep (including that of media maven Arianna Huffington), there’s very little to suggest that getting up in the wee hours to knock off a task or pick up a book is detrimental.
The thing is, research actually shows that, during the evening, we’re biologically hardwired to sleep in two stages. It wasn’t at all unusual for people to sleep for a period in the evening, wake for a few hours to chop wood, get busy with their partners (no, really) or read by candlelight, then return to bed until dawn.
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Historically, there are myriad references to two stages of sleep, from Dickens to medical texts, but with the advent of the industrial revolution and widespread use of electricity, our days have become longer and our evenings shorter, leading us to adopt new, modern sleeping patterns.
It wasn’t at all unusual for people to sleep for a period in the evening, wake for a few hours to chop wood, get busy with their partners (no, really) or read by candlelight, then return to bed until dawn.
Take this experiment performed in the 1990s by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr, as an example of our natural tendency for segmented sleep. The psychiatrist left a group of people in darkness for 14 hours every day instead of the typical eight hours, for a period of a month. Although it took some adjusting, the pattern of two separate sleep periods did emerge after around four weeks: participants would sleep for four hours, wake for three, then sleep again for a further four.
There’s also an interesting correlation between the disappearance of split sleep systems and insomnia literature. “Thus,” write researchers Melinda Jackson and Siobhan Banks, “modern society may place unnecessary pressure on individuals that they must obtain a night of continuous consolidated sleep every night, adding to the anxiety about sleep and perpetuating the problem.”
The next time you’re up in the early hours, give yourself a break. (Or tap your partner on the shoulder.)
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