Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You

Long before eighteen snoozes of alarm clocks and memory foam mattresses, there was a time when physicians did not recommend an eight-hour night of sleep.

Instead, people of the time had two periods of sleep. There is a lot of speculation about the true origin of two periods of sleep and if it is historical in nature.

At the turn of the century, a historian named Roger Ekirch from Virginia Tech published in American Historical Review that human sleep pattern in the pre-industrial age was biphasic.

What, if any, could be the biological advantage of waking yourself up after a couple of hours, staying awake long enough for three Netflix shows (the 45-minute ones), and then falling back asleep until morning?

It has been reported that there is a reproductive advantage to having two periods of sleep. Supposedly, there exists a recommendation from a physician that couples try to conceive in between periods of sleep because it is more enjoyable.

A nap, some coitus, then sleeping for the night does sound like an enjoyable way to live. Perhaps as well, the loss of first sleep and lengthening of second sleep, may be related to the steep decline in the US birth rate.

It was reported in the Washington Post this past June that “the US fertility rate [is at] a historic low.” If a doctor did prescribe copulation between periods of sleep as the BBC reported, and humans have lost two periods of sleep, it is reasonable that simply reinstating a biphasic sleep pattern will help raise the dwindling childbirth numbers.

As a final note, when the government or corporations more likely took away two periods of sleep, they also likely took away the existence of two dreams. While scientists are still uncovering the biological function and advantage of dreaming, it is easy to speculate how having multiple dreams can lead to a higher quality of life.

1. Ekirch, A. Roger (2001). “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles” (PDF). American Historical Review. Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association. 106 (2): 343–386.

2. Hegarty, Stephanie (22 February 2012). “The myth of the eight-hour sleep”. BBC News.

3. Cha, Ariana Eunjung (30 June 2017). “The U.S. Fertility rate just hit a historic low. Why some demographers are freaking out.” The Washington Post.

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D.E. Alexander

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