Are we sleeping the wrong way?

This time of year, darkness falls during the day before we get home for the evening. Fatigue is therefore premature for many, but work still carries on as normal. Under the dim glow of the stars modern society is lit up by electricity in the form of lampposts, shops and cars. Although the world shows that it is evening the day continues as usual. Are we cut for that kind of lifestyle?

For the earliest civilizations darkness outdoors meant it was time to rest. Times have changed however, because if you do not want to sleep in our modern society, one can always find an open McDonald’s or let the many television series keep you company during the restless nights. Historian Roger Ekirch is the author of the book “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past”, in which he describes the astonishing difference in our sleeping habits compared to our ancestors. They would normally sleep in two stages; when darkness fell, people would go to bed and sleep. After three or four hours of sleep would wake up and remained so for three hours, then sleep again until the morning brought the light of day. They gave a total period of twelve hours to the rest. Ekirch’s research comes from sources such as diaries and medical manuals which all show that this way of spending the night was a given for the people from ancient Greece to the early 1700’s.

Another interesting point it reveals is the first signs of sleep disorders where one wakes up in the middle of the night without being to be able to fall back asleep and this started in the beginning of the 1700’s.

Today 30% of all visits to health centres are because of sleep problems. In the US 10% of the population have troubles with waking up in the middle of the night and are not able to fall asleep again for some time. Is that a sign that we are moving towards our evolution?

With the 1700’s came not only sleep disorders but also the industrial revolution. Artificial lighting was invented and before we knew it the streets were lined with lights, public places open longer and homes were lit at night which allowed people to still be active. The forthcoming 1800’s was a period marked by progress in mind. People believed stronger than ever in the development of society, which led to efficiency and work values. If we can continue working when darkness settles, why not? Eventually we could even sleep more efficiently for eight hours. Suddenly rest in bed would consist only of sleep.

Ekirch thinks that sleep disorders where one wakes up in the middle of the night may have its basis in that it goes against the body’s natural sleep rhythm. Physiologist Gregg Jacobs also talks about sleep disorders when he says that through evolution people have slept in two periods, which have become a part of human physiology. Nowadays, when people wake up in the middle of the night, they are worried that there is something wrong with them, when it is only natural. It creates a lot of stress when they feel they have to fall asleep right away to get their eight hours. Stress prevents one from being able to fall asleep and may in turn exacerbate the problem.

Humanity today has largely switched over to a long sleep. Nevertheless, it is good to be aware of our ancestral habits; as Ekirch says in the source material: “It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge”. This means that sleeping was therefore very ingrained in human nature for centuries. Still today not everyone gets eight hours of sleep in a row. Tieraona Low Dog, M.D. writes in her book “Life is Your Best Medicine” about her experience on the issue. For a period of time she began sleeping in the same manner as described in Ekirch’s book, by waking up after a few hours of sleep, staying awake for two hours and then falling asleep again. At first she was very frustrated, but when she later read Ekirch’s book, she realized she actually was not tired in the morning even though she had an interrupted sleep. The point she wants to make is that it is important to think of sleep as a period of rest, and not having to force oneself to sleep.

But who wants to lie awake for several hours at night? What did they do during these hours? Ekirch writes that our ancestors spent the waking hours with quiet activities like meditation, self-reflection and journal writing. The vast majority stayed in bed and reflected on the dreams they just had or prayed to God. Some texts also claim that these hours were the optimum time to make babies.

An infinite amount of research exists about the benefits of meditation. But as mentioned earlier, when the TV can keep you company when darkness has fallen outside the window there are few who choose to spend that time with themselves. As inheritors of the 1800’s efficiency, it is difficult for us to find time for meditation and self-reflection, but research also shows that meditation can improve sleep. Possibly the lack of these peaceful activities also explain why 30% of the population visit health centres for sleep problems.


Source: Arjun Walia, Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You – Are We Doing It Wrong?, Collective Evolution, Tierona Low Dog, ”Life is Your Best Medicine”, s. 141-143

About Malin Eriksson 52 Articles
Malin has previously worked in hotels, studied languages in France and studied history. One of her main interests is traveling, and now she spends much time in North Cyprus which she loves. It has great weather and nice people - and lot of interesting history!