A Fitful History of Sleep Historian Roger Ekirch argues that an uninterrupted night's rest is a modern invention. His op-ed appears in Sunday's New York Times.
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A Fitful History of Sleep

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A Fitful History of Sleep

A Fitful History of Sleep

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It's Monday, and time for a good night's sleep on the TALK OF THE NATION opinion page. We've all grown up believing we need eight solid hours every night. We all know we rarely get it. And we think nostalgically of those silent nights of yesteryear unmarred by car alarms, phone calls and undifferentiated anxieties of modern age.

In an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times, Roger Ekirch explained that our ancestors did not enjoy long stretches of nocturnal bliss, that in fact the idea of eight hours of uninterrupted shut-eye is a modern invention.

Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Tech, and the author of At Day's Close: Nights in Times Past. If you have questions about the quality and the length of sleep through out history, give us a call at 800-989-8255, or email us, talk@npr.org.

Professor Ekrich joins us now from the, excuse me, Ekirch, joins us now from the studios of member station WVTF in Roanoke, Virginia. Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor ROGER EKIRCH (History, Virginia Tech): Thank you, Neal. Happy President's Day.

CONAN: Happy President's Day to you. And I understand that you find evidence that, throughout most of history in fact, people slept in two groups, that as far back as Homer you find evidence of a phrase for the first sleep.

Professor EKIRCH: Precisely. In the course of doing research for my book, which is a broader study of nighttime, I devoted several chapters to sleep. And slowly but clearly fragments began to appear to first sleep, second sleep, and I became increasingly convinced that our forbears, up until the Industrial Revolution, experienced a segmented pattern of sleep distinguished by two intervals bridged by a period of up to an hour or even more in which most individuals experienced a phase of quiet wakefulness in which they did really anything and everything imaginable.

CONAN: So people would go to sleep, what, eight or nine o'clock at night?

Professor EKIRCH: The ideal time, and there were certainly deviations from this, but the standard time for going to sleep was either somewhere between nine and ten PM. They would then routinely sleep several hours, begin to stir sometime past midnight, again remain up and about or remain in bed reflecting on dreams or saying prayers for at least another hour or more. And then return to a second phase.

CONAN: And may have been engaged in family planning or other activities.

Professor EKIRCH: Exactly. Indeed it was an interval that was thought peculiarly well suited to sexual intimacy between couples.

CONAN: And all of this changed, I gather, when technology came along, what, about 200 years ago and with various forms of illumination, most notoriously that invented by Thomas Edison, we banished the night.

Professor EKIRCH: At least began to make strides in that direction. Really beginning as early as the 18th century, when oil lighting became much more prevalent in major urban areas in Western Europe and ultimately early America as well. Then gas lighting in the early 19th century, and then, as you correctly point out, with the rise of electric illumination, later in the 19th century.

Artificial illumination does seem to be the most likely cause behind this shift from what had long been our dominant pattern of sleep to our more compressed consolidated sleep today.

CONAN: We're talking with Roger Ekirch, a professor of history at Virginia Tech. He's on the opinion page today. We're talking about his piece in the New York Times op-ed page yesterday. He's also the author of At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as you also pointed out, there are some class distinctions to be drawn about sleep in the pre-industrial age. One thing, if you can have somebody, you know, poor people, you suggest, didn't get a whole lot of sleep then.

Professor EKIRCH: Yes. In fact, I argue in my book, and I think the evidence is pretty compelling that, especially for the lower orders, they probably suffered, large numbers of them, from chronic sleep deprivation. It really only takes a series of brief arousals during the night to have the quality of your sleep impaired.

It makes more sense to me why really on both sides of the Atlantic masters of servants and slaves both constantly complained about the proclivity of their dependents for napping during the day. The short answer is they were chronically sleep deprived.

CONAN: And as you point out, between the various diseases, which we don't have to suffer these days, between the weather and things like that, there was an awful lot to interrupt your sleep back then.

Professor EKIRCH: Yes. Yes. Above and beyond this other, normal pattern of broken sleep, which I've already mentioned, which people, I want to emphasize, were utterly familiar with and did not view in a pejorative light, in addition to that, yes, there were environmental perils to sound sleep, noise, the unholy trinity of early modern entomology, lice, bedbugs and fleas. The stench of chamber pots, tempestuous weather. But then, as you correctly point out, sickness, sickness in this pre-penicillin age was undoubtedly the greatest threat of them all. Especially respiratory tract illnesses. Coughing.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Bob. Bob's calling us from Bear, Delaware.

BOB (Caller): Hi. How you doing?

CONAN: All right.

BOB: I wanted to say that I sleep exactly like this at least five nights a week. I will sleep a few hours, say from nine or ten o'clock until the middle of the night and I'll get up and I'll read and/or watch TV or surf the Internet for a couple hours and then I'll go back to bed.

CONAN: I have to say, Bob's pattern sounds like Dagwood Bumstead's pre-sleep nap.

BOB: Yeah, except that I don't eat all day. And I do take naps on the weekends too.

CONAN: Okay, Bob.

Professor EKIRCH: Any number of people, actually, have come up to me or phoned me or emailed me indicating that they're very relieved to discover that their current pattern of sleep may not be that abnormal. May not, in other words, be a genuine sleep disorder. And indeed, there's a very renowned sleep expert, Tom Weir, at the National Institute of Mental Health, who has hypothesized, I'm not sure how this can be proved, but he has hypothesized that at least some common sleep disorders today may be nothing more than this older, natural pattern of segmented sleep reasserting itself, breaking into the artificial world, as he has written.

CONAN: So Bob, you're not an insomniac, you're just pre-Industrial.

BOB: That's what I'll tell everybody.

CONAN: All right. Bob, thanks very much for the call.

CONAN: And Roger Ekirch, thank you so much for your time today.

Professor EKIRCH: Thank you very much, Neal. My pleasure.

CONAN: Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Tech. He's the author of At Day's Close: Night in Times Past. His op-ed was in yesterday's New York Times, and he joined us from member station WVTF in Roanoke, Virginia.

You can read Roger Ekirch's article at our website, npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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