How electric lights deprived us of our ‘second sleep’ — and often our ability to ‘sleep on it’

Jun 4, 2023 | 1 comment

History reveals that for countless generations, a practice of remarkable simplicity commandeered the ebb and flow of urban life throughout Europe and large swaths of the developing world. It was a principal source of immeasurable personal comfort while simultaneously encouraging a more symphonic understanding of one’s role in shaping society. It was the tradition of accommodating “second sleep” — of being biphasic.

Before the industrial era most people went to bed around 8 p.m. or so and slept for a few hours before rising around midnight. They would then get up for a spell, have a small nosh, perhaps add a little wood to the fire, and sit quietly reading and reflecting on the day.

As I understand it, a few would forgo all of that, and wind their way to the local tavern for camaraderie and good cheer until the early morning dark when they would return home and join the rest in trotting off to bed for their second phase of sleep.

However, as Artificial Illumination (AI) became common, people began to rely on electricity to stay awake late into the evening and abandoned the old ways; they adopted a monophasic sleep schedule.

It changed the world as dramatically as chips and wafers.

This new technology allowed people the opportunity to erroneously assume an exalted status among all other mammals: the unique ability to sleep through the night without interruption. As a result, people began to lose sight of the importance biphasic induced “quiet wakefulness” added to their emotional well-being; they slept right through it.

Whole swaths of people arrogantly imagined they were now a superior species; and as such, they permitted themselves to exploit others with reckless abandon.  They no longer woke up at night to see for themselves the important work done by the gleaners, pruners, and seed carriers that contribute to a better world every night.

Some folks cried that the world was confused and unraveling, causing considerable worry.

Many lost sleep over it.

For centuries people relied on “first sleep” and “second sleep” to help them make sense of their lives. It was accepted that between the first bout of slumber and the next, there would lie an hour or more of quiet wakefulness known as a “watch.” We understand it today as reserving a quiet period for meditation, reading, and contemplation.  This special time, the meridian between evening and dawn, encouraged people to take stock of their lives and consider options that might have been ignored or misunderstood while entangled in the din of the day.

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr isolated a group of people and plunged them into darkness for 14 hours a day for a month, approximating the night hours of Berlin or London in mid-winter prior to artificial lighting.  By the third week, the subjects had settled into a predictable sleeping pattern. They slept for four hours or so and then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper drawn from 16 years of research that revealed a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct portions. Ekrish’s book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published in 2005, chronicles more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern — in diaries, court records, medical books, and literature — from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

His research confirms that for many hundreds of years society reserved time every night for quiet wakefulness for a very simple reason, it proved to be instrumental in fostering mental health.  The “watch’ served as a fountain for dreams, provided signposts leading towards resolution, and allowed folks time to give pause and live in the moment. The practice of reserving time each evening for reflection was central to their understanding of how best to build a healthy and prosperous world for themselves and their community.

There has been a lot of frantic conjecture lately that the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI2.0) will dominate our lives, contorting us beyond recognition. We are being warned that a pandemic of false accusations will be dumped on us by profiteers driven by greed and power regardless of cost or outcome. The most worried suggest that we will be overwhelmed and then overrun by forces of our own making but no longer in our control; we will be slaves under an ever-watchful eye controlled by forces we cannot see.

These concerns are staggering and deserving our utmost attention.

Given the high stakes we are faced with, it seems appropriate to plan a course of action that works for everyone. Thankfully, a powerful alternative to an AI Orwellian future was provided for us a long time ago. It has a proven track record for being healthy for both mind and body, is cost effective (it is free), does not pollute the environment in any way, and is readily accessible to everyone. In fact, even the least of us can do it perfectly in our sleep.

I suggest we reconsider the lessons embedded in the stories whispered across time, the old songs and ancient tales pulled from the memory of campfires and starry nights. Although these stories originated on the island between light and dark and were carried great distances over many years; the lessons ring true.

Before making any decision take time to sit quietly and listen, remain still long enough to smell the roses, and be sure to get a good night’s sleep – both of them. 

I received a few words of advice when I was a boy that has lingered with me for ages. I was living in Ohio. The farmland that rooted our community was, as I remember it, a collage of waist-high tomatoes, sprawling pumpkin patches, and blinking swatches of English daisies; the sky was a twitter with bugs of every sort, style, and size, with the ability to bite, prick, or burrow. It was late summer; I would be going back to school soon.

A passing stranger overheard me negotiating with a rather shady-looking character over the price of a surplus bicycle he claimed to have recently found abandoned and that I desperately craved.

“Hey, kid!” the stranger called out. “Life-defining decisions that will alter your life, like a bicycle, require thoughtful consideration. Tell the seller not to rush. Tell him:

“I will get back to you tomorrow.”

“I’m going to sleep on it.”

Robert Bradley

Dani News

Google ad

Google ad

The Cuenca Dispatch

Week of June 16

Noboa’s Government Moves to End Fuel Gasoline Subsidies, Highlighting Inequities for Low-Income Groups.

Read more

Cuenca-Girón-Pasaje Road to Temporarily Close for Pipeline Replacement.

Read more

Ecuador to Initiate Construction of $52 Million ‘Bukele-Style’ Prison to Combat Organized Crime.

Read more

Happy Life

Hogar Esperanza News

Fund Grace News