At 3 a.m. i’m jolted awake. The room is dark and still. I grab my phone and scan sports scores and Twitter. Still awake. A faceless physician whispers in my mind: To overcome middle-of-the-night insomnia, experts say you ought to get out of bed … I get out of bed. I pour a glass of water and drink it. I go back to bed. Still awake. Perhaps you know the feeling. Like millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people around the world, I suffer from so-called mid-sleep awakenings that can keep me up for hours.
One day, I was researching my nocturnal issues when I discovered a cottage industry of writers and sleep hackers who claim that sleep is a nightmare because of the industrial revolution, of all things. Essays in The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine recommended an old fix for restlessness called “segmented sleep.” In premodern Europe, and perhaps centuries earlier, people routinely went to sleep around nightfall and woke up around midnight—only to go back to sleep a few hours later, until morning. They slept sort of like I do, but they were Zen about it. Then, the hackers claim, modernity came along and ruined everything by pressuring everybody to sleep in one big chunk.
The romanticization of preindustrial sleep fascinated me. It also snapped into a popular template of contemporary internet analysis: If you experience a moment’s unpleasantness, first blame modern capitalism. So I reached out to Roger Ekirch, the historian whose work broke open the field of segmented sleep more than 20 years ago.
In the 1980s, Ekirch was researching a book about nighttime before the industrial revolution. One day in London, wading through public records, he stumbled on references to “first sleep” and “second sleep” in a crime report from the 1600s. He had never seen the phrases before. When he broadened his search, he found mentions of first sleep in Italian (primo sonno), French (premier sommeil), and even Latin (primo somno); he found documentation in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America.
When sleep was divided into a two-act play, people were creative with how they spent the intermission. They didn’t have anxious conversations with imaginary doctors; they actually did something. During this dorveille, or “wake-sleep,” people got up to pee, hung out by the fire, had sex, or prayed. They reflected on their dreams and commingled with the spiritual realm, both the divine and the diabolical. In the 1550s, Martin Luther wrote of his strategies to ward off the devil: “Almost every night when I wake up … I instantly chase him away with a fart.”
Today’s sleep writers often wield Ekirch’s research to suggest that segmented sleep (or, as Ekirch calls it, biphasic—two-phase—sleep) is old, and one-sleep is new, and therefore today’s sleepers are doing it wrong. But that’s not the full story, he told me.