It’s 1:07 a.m. I woke up about fifteen minutes ago. Actually, I seemed to sort of snap awake in the middle of a thought. By the bed, I keep a legal pad and a little book light to make notes because this happens nearly every night.
I used to call this insomnia. I used to assume it was the result of my paternal family’s genetic nervousness, since some of us are wrapped tighter than mummies, with migraines, bouts of sleepwalking, and restless leg syndrome. Or, as my mother chooses to puts it, “one step ahead of a fit.” I preferred to think of it as a sign of creative genius.
Well no. It’s merely how people slept for centuries. It may, in fact, be the more natural rhythm for human sleep. In the sixteenth century, it was called “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Today, it’s called segmented sleep or a bi-modal sleep pattern.
The best historical study of this is a book called At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by Virginia Tech history professor Roger Erich. Erich found more than 500 references to segmented sleep in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Canterbury Tales. Apparently, this was the normal, accepted pattern of sleep for centuries.
The pattern seems to be that people slept for three to four hours, were awake for two to three hours, and then slept three to four more hours.
During their interval of wakefulness, they read or wrote, prayed or meditated, had sex, played cards, and after tobacco arrived in Europe, smoked. There are many prayer manuals from the late 15th Century that include special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.
All this changed with artificial lighting. We began staying up later to keep up with Khloe and Kourtney, buying sleep aids to help us cram all our sleep into one chunk, and fretting because we “just can’t sleep.”
From a scientific standpoint, studies have shown that a bi-modal routine creates a healthy pattern of prolactin, GnRH, and all those hormones and chemicals that are constantly sloshing around, causing us to be cranky and gain weight.
Creativity studies have shown the midnight hours of wakefulness are closer to our subconscious and a period of special creativity. (Notice how creative I am right now.)
Because I find actually getting out of bed to work in the night a little daunting, I have one of these lazy person’s laptop stands. I’m using it right now and it’s great.
According to Professor Russell Foster, Chair of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford, “Many people wake up at night and panic. I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.”
So, if you wake up in the night, don’t fret. You’re just a Renaissance person.
Image #1: Renaissance bed, Chateau du Clos Luce, Gregg’s Blog, harpguitars.net Image #2: Closet bed, Museum Kastenbett