History of sleep: what was normal? (2023)

History of sleep: what was normal? (1)Interview conducted by April Cashin-Garbutt, MA (Editor)May 17 2017

History of sleep: what was normal? (2) Thought LeadersProf. Roger EkirchVirginia Polytechnic Institute State University

An interview with Professor Roger Ekirch, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, conducted by April Cashin-Garbutt, MA (Cantab)

Is it true that we used to sleep in two phases: first sleep and second sleep?

Absolutely, the evidence for which is voluminous. Arguably from time immemorial to the nineteenth century, the dominant pattern of sleep in Western societies was biphasic, whereby most preindustrial households retired between 9 and 10pm, slept for 3 to 3 ½ hours during their “first sleep,” awakened after midnight for an hour or so, during which individuals did practically anything and everything imaginable before taking a “second sleep,” roughly until dawn.

History of sleep: what was normal? (3)

How far back does the evidence extend for this biphasic pattern of sleep?

The earliest reference I have found is in Homer’s Odyssey, written in either the late eighth or early seventh century B.C. A much longer reference appears in Virgil’s Aeneid, nor were these the only classical writers to refer to this biphasic pattern of sleep - among others, Thucydides, Livy, and Apuleius.

When did it become commonplace to consolidate these two phases into a compressed single sleep and why did this change occur?

The transformation over the course of the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States was protracted and erratic for technological and cultural reasons, both a product in large measure of the Industrial Revolution.

(Video) The History of Bedtime- Segmented Sleep and Dreams

Most important was the growing prevalence of artificial illumination, first gas, followed later by electric lighting. Not until the early twentieth century, with the lingering exception of remote rural areas, would seamless slumber be perceived as utterly normal.

How much evidence is there documenting the evolution of sleep patterns over this period?

A small mountain of material in English thanks to commercial databases containing vast storehouses of newspapers, periodicals, scientific publications, and literature, all of which are keyword searchable. What might still seem time-consuming takes a matter of months rather than several lifetimes.

As I tell my students working on research papers, we are still looking for needles in haystacks but we are now blessed with extraordinarily powerful magnets in the form of search engines able to canvass thousands of pages of historical evidence.

History of sleep: what was normal? (4)

The Sleep of a girl, After kind of study by Moreau the Younger, engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque (1882).

Have anthropological studies found segmented sleep patterns in any indigenous cultures?

Incontestably. The most current introduction to this is my piece, “Segmented Sleep in Preindustrial Societies,” in the March 2016 issue of the journal Sleep. On virtually every continent, save for Antarctica, there is evidence of biphasic sleep among preindustrial cultures.

What remains unresolved is whether this form of slumber has been as dominant as it once was in the Western world.

How did the increasing prevalence of artificial light affect sleep patterns?

In all likelihood in two ways. Over the eighteenth-century, progress in urban lighting in Europe and America, fuelled by oil from the whaling trade, had rapidly accelerated, only to be followed in 1807 by the introduction of gas streetlights in London.

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By 1823, nearly forty thousand lamps lit more than two hundred miles of the city’s streets. In the United States, three hundred municipalities boasted street lamps by 1860.

(Video) Why Humans Are Supposed to Sleep in Two 4-Hour Phases

Advances in illumination quickly followed in businesses and well-to-do households. Light from a lone gas mantle proved twelve times as strong as that from a candle or oil lamp, whereas light from a single electric bulb, by the close of the nineteenth century, was one hundred times more powerful.

To begin with, while this radical transformation in lighting resulted in later urban bedtimes, it brought no evident change in rising time (typically around dawn). Many adults likely felt more fatigued than had previous generations upon retiring at night. With their drive to sleep heightened, they probably slept continuously for a longer duration and more soundly.

Modern advocates of ‘sleep restriction therapy,’ as I understand it, emphasize the importance of compression to the promotion of slow-wave sleep at the expense of other lighter, less efficient forms, such as REM sleep.

In essence, heightened sleep propensity, according to this theory, probably enhanced the quality of slumber, thereby rendering the loss of a second sleep during the nineteenth century more acceptable.

Still, more important, not only did the expansion of artificial lighting expand night’s waking hours, but it also had another, even more fundamental consequence. Of the impact of light – or, in turn, its absence – on sleep, there is wide scientific agreement.

Sleep propensity is extremely sensitive to artificial light, or, in turn, its absence. ‘Every time we turn on a light’, the sleep scientist Dr. Charles Czeisler has remarked, ‘we are inadvertently taking a drug that affects how we will sleep’.

Just a few hours of exposure to artificial illumination, received via photoreceptors in the retinas of our eyes, can reset the circadian pacemaker.

Located at the base of the brain, the pacemaker is a tiny body of cells, the size of a grain of rice, that controls the flow of hormones and changes in body functions that have daily rhythms.

Among other consequences are fluctuations in levels of the brain hormone melatonin, the chemical central to the sleep-wake cycle that is suppressed by light.

(Video) Our Culture Is Ruining Our Sleep

Produced by the pineal gland, melatonin signals to the human body the arrival of darkness and helps to induce sleep. At night, ‘when the pacemaker ‘expects’ darkness’, Charles Czeisler has written, exposure to light ‘has the most profound resetting effect’.

What do you think the future holds for our sleep patterns?

Given modern improvements in combatting insects (bedbugs, lice, and fleas), the weather, noise, and, most of all, illness and pain, our sleep today should never have been better.

History of sleep: what was normal? (5)

Tartini dream old illustration: Famous composer and violinist of the Republic of Venice. Created by J. Boilly after Boilly father, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1840.

No longer are we anxious, like our forbears, over the perils posed at night by fire, burglars, and witches. As an historian, I am not in the prediction business, nor am I a scientist. That said, the present trajectory suggests that our sleep will remain consolidated.

As for its quality, barring the public consumption of drugs, such as the U.S. military is developing to keep soldiers awake for days on end, what the future has in store is up to each and every one of us.

Currently, many of us seem determined to cheat ourselves of sufficient sleep given our high-wattage lifestyles. The irony is that the less time we allot to sleep, the more demanding we become that it be satisfying.

A consequence of this quixotic quest in pursuit of the perfect night’s sleep is that individuals rush to the medicine cabinet and buy exorbitantly priced mattresses (thus buttressing what has been termed the “sleep industrial complex”) – to be followed by relying on highly caffeinated “power beverages” and, if we have the opportunity, naps to get through the day.

Where can readers find more information?

For my latest contribution to the history and transformation of segmented sleep, please see “The Modernization of Western Sleep: Or, Does Insomnia Have a History?” Past and Present (February 2015), 149-192. Further information can be found on my website under the heading “Sleep Research” at http://www.history.vt.edu/Ekirch/sleepcommentary.html.

(Video) I Tried the Forgotten Habit of "Two Sleeps"

About Professor Roger Ekirch

History of sleep: what was normal? (6)Roger Ekirch is an award-winning author of five books and a professor of history at Virginia Tech. His writing has been translated into eight languages.

Although early America remain his teaching interest, his research has ranged widely to include European as well as American history - even the history of sleep, which he probed, most notably, in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (W.W. Norton, 2005), a panoramic study of nocturnal culture before the Industrial Revolution, now in its eighth printing, and the recipient of four prizes.

His most recent book, American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution, was published in February 2017 by Pantheon, an imprint of Alfred A. Knopf.

In addition to numerous scholarly articles his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, the Huffington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal, for which he is a regular book reviewer.

Prof. Ekirch has been interviewed on the BBC, CBC, “Morning Edition,” “Talk of the Nation,” “On Point,” and “Weekend Edition,” as well as on “BBC One,” “Book TV,” “The History Channel,” PBS’s “Points of View,” Canadian Public Television, and the BBC's "One Show.”

Meanwhile, his path-breaking work uncovering the history of “segmented sleep” has revamped traditional assumptions about normal human slumber. A member of the editorial board of Sleep Health: The Journal of the National Sleep Foundation, he has given frequent keynote addresses to medical gatherings.

In an article in Scientific American Mind, Walter A. Brown, M.D. of Brown University Medical School marvelled, “The source of this new assault on conventional thinking comes not from a drug company or a university research program but from a historian.”

His sleep scholarship has also inspired art exhibitions at the Galleria Raucci Santamaria in Naples, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Bonniers Konsthall Museum of Contemporary Art in Stockholm During Prof. Ekirch’s career, he has received four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in 1981-1982 he became the first Paul Mellon Fellow at Cambridge University, where he taught in the Faculty of History and resided as a Fellow Commoner at Peterhouse. In 1998, he was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship.

Prof. Ekirch was born in Washington, D.C. He graduated cum laude with highest distinction in history from Dartmouth College. 1972. Obtaining his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Johns Hopkins University, he arrived at Virginia Tech in 1977. He and his family make their home on Sugarloaf Mountain in Roanoke County.

(Video) Psychology of Sleep: The History of Sleep Science


What was the normal sleeping hours at night? ›

Most adults need 7 to 9 hours, although some people may need as few as 6 hours or as many as 10 hours of sleep each day. Older adults (ages 65 and older) need 7-8 hours of sleep each day. Women in the first 3 months of pregnancy often need several more hours of sleep than usual.

What happens if we don't get enough sleep answer? ›

In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don't get enough sleep. So, your body needs sleep to fight infectious diseases. Long-term lack of sleep also increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease.

How many sleep hours you think are enough for having a normal life and why? ›


National Sleep Foundation guidelines. View Source advise that healthy adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Babies, young children, and teens need even more sleep to enable their growth and development. People over 65 should also get 7 to 8 hours per night.

How much sleep is proven enough? ›

Experts recommend that adults sleep between 7 and 9 hours a night. Adults who sleep less than 7 hours a night may have more health issues than those who sleep 7 or more hours a night.

How much sleep does a 100 year old need? ›

Older adults need about the same amount of sleep as all adults—7 to 9 hours each night. But, older people tend to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier than they did when they were younger.

How many hours a night did Winston Churchill sleep? ›

Similarly to Margaret Thatcher and especially during the war years, Winston Churchill would only sleep for four to five hours a night. However, in contrast to Thatcher, he would catch up on sleep in the afternoons with a 90 minute nap.

What happens to your brain when you don't get enough sleep? ›

Sleep deprivation leaves your brain exhausted, so it can't perform its duties as well. You may also find it more difficult to concentrate or learn new things. The signals your body sends may also be delayed, decreasing your coordination and increasing your risk for accidents.

Did you know facts about not getting enough sleep? ›

Recent studies are starting to show that sleep deprivation not only creates problems with memory and concentration, but also raises the risk of cancer, especially breast, prostate and colorectal cancers. One study found that people with sleep problems are twice as likely to develop prostate cancer.

What are the main causes of lack of sleep? ›

Common causes of chronic insomnia include:
  • Stress. Concerns about work, school, health, finances or family can keep your mind active at night, making it difficult to sleep. ...
  • Travel or work schedule. ...
  • Poor sleep habits. ...
  • Eating too much late in the evening.
Oct 15, 2016

What time should a 70 year old go to bed? ›

According to their internal body clock, most older adults need to go to sleep around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. and wake up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Many people fight their natural inclination to sleep and choose to go to bed several hours later instead.

Can 2 hours of sleep be enough? ›

Sleeping for a couple of hours or fewer isn't ideal, but it can still provide your body with one sleep cycle. Ideally, it's a good idea to aim for at least 90 minutes of sleep so that your body has time to go through a full cycle.

Can you function on 2 hours of sleep? ›

The answer to this question is an emphatic no. Most people will still be impaired from sleep deficiency even if they sleep for more than twice this amount.

What is the healthiest amount of sleep? ›

Sleep needs can vary from person to person, but in general, experts recommend that healthy adults get an average of 7 to 9 hours per night of shuteye. If you regularly need more than 8 or 9 hours of sleep per night to feel rested, it might be a sign of an underlying problem, Polotsky says.

How much sleep is best for brain function? ›

Experts recommend 7-8 hours of sleep for better brain health
  • Sleep is vital to brain health, including cognitive function. ...
  • The sleep-wake cycle is influenced by many factors. ...
  • Regular exposure to light and physical activity supports good sleep.
  • People, at any age, can change their behavior to improve their sleep.
Jan 31, 2017

How many Americans don't get enough sleep? ›

According to the National Institutes of Health, 7% to 19% of adults reportedly do not get enough sleep, 40% reportedly fall asleep during the day at least once a month, and 50 to 70 million Americans have chronic sleep disorders.

Why does my 91 year old mother sleep all the time? ›

Boredom, depression, chronic pain and/or nutritional deficiencies can be some of the underlying causes that account for excessive daytime sleeping. Medications can also be a problem.

Why do seniors nap so much? ›

Excessive daytime sleepiness in older adults may be a symptom of health issues like sleep apnea, cognitive impairment, or cardiovascular issues. Sleep apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea can cause pauses in breathing during sleep.

Why do seniors wake up at night? ›

Older people wake up an average of 3 or 4 times each night. They are also more aware of being awake. Older people wake up more often because they spend less time deep sleep. Other causes include needing to get up and urinate (nocturia), anxiety, and discomfort or pain from long-term (chronic) illnesses.

What time did Albert Einstein sleep? ›

Albert Einstein is said to have slept 10 hours per night, plus regular daytime naps.

How long did Arnold Schwarzenegger sleep? ›

Arnold Schwarzenegger's “sleep faster” strategy

The former Mr Olympia sleeps just six hours a night so that he has at least 18 hours of productive time during the day. The seven-time bodybuilding champion reportedly spent as much time in the gym as he did in bed during his early career.

What was Da Vinci's sleeping schedule? ›

Leonardo Da Vinci Some sources claim that Da Vinci was able to stay awake and alert almost 22 hours of every day, all while working on his brilliant artworks and inventions. He slept only 1.5 – 2 hours a day, taking 20-minute naps every four hours.

What is the longest someone can go without sleep? ›

The easy experimental answer to this question is 264 hours (about 11 days). In 1965, Randy Gardner, a 17-year-old high school student, set this apparent world-record for a science fair. Several other normal research subjects have remained awake for eight to 10 days in carefully monitored experiments.

How much deep sleep do you need by age? ›

If you're under age 30, you may get two hours of deep sleep each night. If you're over age 65, on the other hand, you may only get a half hour of deep sleep each night, or none at all. There's no specific requirement for deep sleep, but younger people may need more because it promotes growth and development.

Can lack of sleep make your brain foggy? ›

Also, lack of sleep, overworking, and stress can cause brain fog. Brain fog can be frustrating, but relief is possible. Do not ignore your symptoms. If left untreated, brain fog can impact the quality of your life and lead to other conditions such as Parkinson's disease, memory loss, and Alzheimer's disease.

What is a little known fact about sleep? ›

Within 5 minutes of waking up, 50% of your dream is forgotten. After an additional 5 minutes, 90% of recollection is gone.

What are the foods that make you sleepy? ›

Here are the 9 best foods and drinks you can have before bed to enhance your quality of sleep.
  • Almonds. Almonds are a type of tree nut with many health benefits. ...
  • Turkey. Turkey is delicious and nutritious. ...
  • Chamomile tea. ...
  • Kiwi. ...
  • Tart cherry juice. ...
  • Fatty fish. ...
  • Walnuts. ...
  • Passionflower tea.

What foods cause insomnia? ›

If you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, avoiding certain foods and beverages may help. Studies have linked caffeinated foods and beverages, added sugar, refined carbs, spicy foods, high fat foods, and alcohol to poor sleep quality and shorter sleep duration.

Do you age slower if you sleep more? ›

Sleeping well can lower blood pressure, relax blood vessels and improve blood flow, bringing nutrients—and a healthy color—to the skin. Sleep also slows the aging of the heart and blood vessels. Poor circulation and arterial aging are major contributors to the appearance of aging on the skin and hair.

Is 70 considered elderly? ›

Who is Defined as Elderly? Typically, the elderly has been defined as the chronological age of 65 or older. People from 65 to 74 years old are usually considered early elderly, while those over 75 years old are referred to as late elderly.

How much sleep does a 80 year old need? ›

Most healthy older adults aged 65 or older need 7-8 hours of sleep each night to feel rested and alert.

How little sleep can you survive on? ›

The longest recorded time without sleep is approximately 264 hours, or just over 11 consecutive days. Although it's unclear exactly how long humans can survive without sleep, it isn't long before the effects of sleep deprivation start to show. After only three or four nights without sleep, you can start to hallucinate.

Is 5 hours of sleep ok for one night? ›

But five hours of sleep out of a 24-hour day isn't enough, especially in the long term. According to a 2018 study of more than 10,000 people, the body's ability to function declines if sleep isn't in the seven- to eight-hour range.

Can you survive on 6 hours of sleep? ›

You can survive on six hours of sleep but that would not be good for your long-term health. Getting less sleep can make you drowsy, which can increase your risk of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders, resulting in falls and road accidents.

What can I drink to not fall asleep? ›

10 Beverages to Keep You Awake and Focused
  1. Green Tea. Green Tea is the best substitute for coffee. ...
  2. Wheatgrass Juice. Wheatgrass is said to be a natural energizer. ...
  3. Apple Cider Vinegar. ...
  4. Matcha Tea. ...
  5. Coconut Water. ...
  6. Golden Milk. ...
  7. Green Smoothie. ...
  8. Lemon Water.
Jul 10, 2021

How long is a power nap? ›

“A power nap is a nap that's short — less than 30 minutes long,” says Safia Khan, MD, a specialist in sleep disorders and an assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine and the department of neurology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Why do I wake up every 2 hours at night? ›

Reasons this might happen include drinking caffeine or alcohol late in the day, a poor sleep environment, a sleep disorder, or another health condition. When you can't get back to sleep quickly, you won't get enough quality sleep to keep you refreshed and healthy.

Is 6 hours a night enough sleep? ›

While some people regularly function on short periods of sleep, research mostly agrees that six hours of sleep is not enough for most adults. Experts recommend that most adults need at least seven hours of sleep every night.

Is it good to get 5 hours of sleep? ›

Sometimes life calls and we don't get enough sleep. But five hours of sleep out of a 24-hour day isn't enough, especially in the long term. According to a 2018 study of more than 10,000 people, the body's ability to function declines if sleep isn't in the seven- to eight-hour range.

Why do I keep waking up after 6 hours of sleep? ›

There are many reasons why you might be waking up too early. They include external factors, such as environmental disturbances like temperature, light, and noise. They also include internal factors, like your circadian rhythm, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and/or medical issues, like heartburn.

Why do I wake up at 2am every night? ›

Reasons this might happen include drinking caffeine or alcohol late in the day, a poor sleep environment, a sleep disorder, or another health condition. When you can't get back to sleep quickly, you won't get enough quality sleep to keep you refreshed and healthy.

How many hours does Elon Musk sleep? ›

Elon Musk says he is "fairly nocturnal" and only sleeps about six hours a day. The world's richest man made the comments during an August 5 episode of The Full Send podcast. He said he usually goes to sleep at about 3 a.m. and wakes up after about six hours at 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m.

What will happen if I sleep 4 hours a day? ›

People who sleep less than the recommended 7 to 8 hours per night are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression, diabetes and even dementia, Fu and other experts say.


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