We’ve been hearing for years that 8 hours of sleep is the amount most human beings need in order to maintain health and meet their full potential. But is that REALLY the right number? Some success driven individuals have mentioned their frustration at the need for sleep. Salvador Dali, the famed surrealist painter, was so intrigued by the fantastical images he saw when falling asleep that he would hold a spoon in his hand over a tin plate on the ground. When he grew tired and it fell the clatter would wake him up and instead of sleeping he would paint madly. Arnold Schwarzenegger once told an audience of college graduates to learn to “sleep faster” so that they could accomplish more in a day by learning to get by on only 6 hours of sleep. But before you utilize the Sleepy’s return policy, and get rid of that amazing bed you just invested in, consider what scientists have discovered about traditional human sleep patterns.
Street Lights and Not-So Sweet Slumber
Prior to the advent of street lights, first gas and then electric, the opportunity for gathering after the sun had set was not common. Those hours of darkness were typically only utilized by portions of the population who wanted to remain unseen; such as criminals, drunks, and often persecuted religious group. But when the first lamplighters began their task of illuminating the streets of Paris in 1667, with glass protected candles atop street posts, the night became a social gathering time for the higher classes and law-abiding citizens as well.
When the streets became lit by those little golden candles cafe owners found an increase in their business and began to keep their doors open late into the night. People who had once considered a two-part sleep cycle the “norm” were quickly moving to one, longer block of sleep to accommodate a late night social life.
First and Second Sleep
Combining the work of sleep specialists and historians suggests that prior to our modern era of light, most people didn’t sleep for a full 8 hours. Instead they slept in two sets of four hours, interrupted by a two or three hour “midnight” hour awake period. Up until the lamplighters arrival, it was commonly accepted that most people slept in those two, four hour blocks which they often referred to as first and second sleep. It was the Hobbit’s version of a good night’s rest.
People would retire not long after the sun had set and they’d eaten their evening meal, only to wake sometime between 10 pm and midnight to read, eat again, visit with other family members, retire again around 1 am and sleep until 5 in the morning. Early to bed and early to rise was the name of the game.
However, by the end of the 1600’s that two-part sleep was giving way to the night life. Over 50 of Europe’s largest cities had invested in candle or oil street lighting by then and with the push for productivity and efficiency brought on by the Industrial Revolution, society never returned to those 4 hour blocks again.
What Does Block Sleeping Mean For Us?
So what does this mean for us? Sleep experts have long stated that 8 hours really is the optimum number for most people. Without that rest we don’t stay healthy, our ability to work suffers, and our creative energy falls behind. But many people find themselves up and restless in the middle of the night. Prescriptions for sleep aids have become quite commonplace and many people think there is something wrong with them if they don’t sleep for a full 8 hours.
Here’s the interesting thing about sleep: you need your 8 hours, but you don’t need it all at once. The amazing human body is designed to run on sleep cycles of approximately 90 minutes. During each cycle we go through 5 stages of sleep: NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep which comprises stages 1-4 and varying degrees of light and deep sleep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, or stage 5, which is where most of our dreaming occurs.
A person needs at least 5 of these cycles to be at optimum performance and health, but they don’t have to happen all at once. Two cycles together, interspersed with wakefulness and productivity, can lead to an increase in learning retention and natural healing.
Bring Back The Siesta
This all sounds great, but what about trying to fit a sleep schedule into a work schedule? Perhaps we need only to look at Mediterranean culture to find a solution. The siesta, or afternoon sleep, can be a definite boost for many individuals. It might be impossible to fit a full 90 minutes into your shift, but taking a 20 minute power nap can do you more good than you realize. A person can usually run through the first 2 stages of sleep,a light sleep, which does the most good for physical rejuvenation. Try it the next time you’re feeling sluggish in the early pm hours. Set the alarm on your phone, shut the door, and close your eyes for 20 minutes and see if it doesn’t give you more energy than a caffeine induced jitter will.
If 8 hours of sleep is working for you, no problem, but if you find yourself wandering your halls every night around midnight, don’t worry too much. Just turn on some music, write a letter, call a friend in Tokyo who is just getting ready for a lunch break, and enjoy some friendly conversation. Then go back to bed in the early am, knowing you’re just following in the sleepy steps of your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents.
Feature image Copyright: paktaotik2 / 123RF Stock Photo