Experimenting with Segmented Sleep
There is a lot of talk about sleep these days. We don’t sleep enough. We sleep incorrectly. We don’t sleep well. We might even be doing REM wrong – the dream cycle, not the band. Last summer, in 2013, I took a post-Marxisms course in the Communication Department of my university. We discussed was the nature of sleep for a week in relation to Karl Marx’s ideas about time. One student brought up the idea that humans didn’t always sleep 8 hours straight through the night. The claim was that this style of sleep is in fact, an invention of the Industrial age. Instead, humans used to sleep in segments, usually consisting of two, with a break between sleep cycles in the middle. These segments were called ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep, respectively. An avid sleeper, my curiosity on the topic would take root and grow until I finally made the decision to donate my body to pseudo-science in order to discern what this might be all about.
The inquiry began with a few simple questions:
How might my body react to a drastic shift in sleep behavior?
Would I be able to sleep in segments at all, given my entire life has operated by singular sleep?
What else might I experience during segmented sleep?
I chose to conduct the experiment over a period of 20 days this summer. I guessed that 20 days was sufficient time to ‘get used’ to a new sleep schedule. In order to stay on this schedule, I charted it out, plotted it on my Google calendar, and told my social circle that I would be adhering to a rather odd schedule for the next several weeks. Below is a drafted log of my initial expectations for sleep and wake times.
As you can see, I had to know when the sun rose and set each day. In addition, I kept a blog, which you can find at vrobinphd.com/blog/. The ‘A’ in the center column indicates that I would be reading an article, or a chapter of a book, on the topic of segmented sleep, and responding to the article. The ‘N’ indicates that I would write my narrative experience that day.
My experience was more multifaceted than I initially expected.
The scholarship on segmented sleep is limited. The authority, which all other segmented sleep articles seem to cite, is a book called At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch, historian at Virginia Tech. Once you’ve read the last two chapters of Ekirch’s book and perhaps an article or two, you too will be the authority on segmented sleep. Still, I pressed on with the experiment and the search for more sources. The general consensus is that electric lights and the industrial work ethic are largely to blame for the shift in sleep habits.
New York Times
My personal experiences, in contrast, were not as limited. First I discovered that people probably did not actually go to sleep with the sun. Even though the sun is recorded to set at a specific time, it doesn’t actually get dark at this time. As you can see in my record of when I actually slept below, I frequently went to sleep after the nine o’clock hour – sometimes even going down as late as ten.
I especially didn’t expect that it would be easy to get up after first sleep. As you can see from the log, I woke up largely around the same time every night, ending first sleep right around 1AM each morning. The ‘N’ next to my wake time means I naturally awoke without the aid of an alarm. During the period between first and second sleep (a period that has never been named), I felt incredibly restful. I read, or had a snack, or even chatted with friends awake in other time zones. According to scholarship, this wakeful time was often used for prayer, meditation, reading, or having sex. Many people have reported, via diaries and journals, feeling meditative – I had this experience right away. What’s more, I felt calm all during my ‘regular’ waking hours as well. I felt less anxious, and more productive.
In order to assist in my own melatonin production, I didn’t use electric lights during my experiment, except during sunlight hours. Ekirch’s research reports that electric lights are largely responsible for the shift in human sleep habits, and so I stocked up on candles for the experiment. I didn’t much believe that lights would have a noticeable effect on my ability to sleep or stay awake, but I was wrong. Candlelight helped my body slow down and feel tired. It also allowed me to maintain a meditative wakefulness between sleeps. I found that I enjoyed the candlelight, even if reading by it is more difficult (and I admit I almost lit myself on fire more than once). The most surprising element from the change in lighting was my finding that I can chose to become tired with a simple shift in light source. I am a night owl, generally, but I don’t have to be. I can choose.
The last bit I’ll cover here is that I found this experience affected my social life. My friends were very good about not keeping me out, and attempting to adhere to my early-to-bed needs, which I appreciated. But I wonder whether segmenting was easier in a community. I was incredibly lucky to find a friend who was willing to spend some of my mid-wake time with me. For a few days, we spent our early mornings (Midnight – 1AM) talking in the kitchen, drinking tea. And on the very last night of my experiment, we went out for a beer a little after midnight. That experience was strange: the crowd out at that time is nearly-to-very drunk, and the atmosphere at the establishment we chose was very ‘end-of-the-night.’ My companion and I were calm, sober, and not interested in being drunk. I can only imagine how different late night libations would have been had the entire village participated in segmented sleep.
It only took me about 48 hours to go right back to a ‘regular’ sleep schedule – probably because I used electric lights again right away. In truth though, despite my tendency to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning, I did enjoy waking up early and sitting out on the patio, or spending time alone reading, or thinking between sleep. I felt strangely safer – more insulated – less likely to make a questionable decision. Sometimes I think about making it a regular habit, but then I remember that I am highly social and I keep the lights on.
Valerie Robin is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is senior editor at Hybrid Pedagogy
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