Michael Herrick's blog

First Sleep and Second Sleep

A historian named Roger Ekirch proposed more than ten years ago that the eight-hour uninterrupted sleep pattern we’re accustomed to is actually a recent and anomalous historical development. Few have heard of his research. I just read about it in a BBC article, The myth of the eight-hour sleep. From the article:

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.

His book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths 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.

The two chunks were usually referred to as “first sleep” and “second sleep.” First sleep would usually start a few hours after dark. Then folks would wake for a few hours of light activity—snacks, chatting, prayer, sex—and finish the night with a second sleep till dawn.

People are now calling it segmented sleep and it sounds immensely more refreshing.

A reference to segmented sleep that Ekirch finds in Don Quixote:

Don Quixote followed nature, and being satisfied with his first sleep, did not solicit more. As for Sancho, he never wanted a second, for the first lasted him from night to morning.

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