The myth of the eight-hour sleep

For much of my adult life, I’ve had trouble sleeping throughout the night, often waking up in the early morning hours, unable to go back to sleep.  On weekends or on vacation, I’ve simply gotten up, drank and/or ate something, maybe read a little bit, and then eventually gone back to sleep, knowing that I had the extra time to sleep in, but often wishing I was able to do it in my regular schedule, or bemoaning my body’s weird sleep cycle.

Well, turns out I may be more normal than I thought: BBC News – The myth of the eight-hour sleep.

We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night – but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.

…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.

…Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.

“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

And these hours weren’t entirely solitary – people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.

Of course, the drawback is that to have these two sleep periods, you’d have to go to bed earlier, or get up later in the morning, and our society isn’t exactly structured for that.  It’d be interesting if it was though.  There might be a prime time TV period between midnight and 2am to entertain people during their intermediate wake period.

This also reminds me of the seista, the afternoon nap, that many cultures allow and encourage, particularly ones where the afternoon heat makes it too uncomfortable to do much of anything but nap.  It seems there are multiple alternatives to the eight hour sleep.

7 thoughts on “The myth of the eight-hour sleep

  1. I think that the big mistake is assuming that everyone needs the same sleep patterns throughout their life. I used to be able to get away with very little sleep, but now I apparently need more than the usual amount. I’m sure it will change again also!


  2. I’ve bought into this myth so thoroughly that getting anything less than eight hours puts me in a grumpy mood. I wonder if I’m psyching myself out? My husband, who refuses to wear a watch, will ask me what time it is in order to find out if he’s hungry. I suppose it could be something like that.


    1. LOLS! I think the myth they’re talking about here is 8 contiguous hours of sleep. I fear we’re stuck having to spend roughly a third of our life asleep (contiguous or not), at least without long term health consequences.


      1. Oh, I mean continuous, for sure. If I get, say, 7 continuous hours, I’ll take a 2 or 3 hour nap later, as if to compensate for the trials and tribulations I’ve had to go through in missing that one hour.

        Yesterday is a perfect example of this. I had to fly all day from Vermont to Arizona. I went to bed late the night before and woke up early and spent all day in foul mood. I think I slept pretty much the whole way home, so there’s no reason why I should have felt so betrayed by life, but that didn’t stop me from complaining about everything.

        I hear when you get older you don’t need as much sleep. People talk about getting five hours, and it sounds absolutely incomprehensible to me.


        1. I fear that the sad truth is that when we get older, it gets harder to get the same amount of sleep that came easily when we were young, and that the people who say you don’t need as much may be rationalizing to make the best of it.

          Or maybe I’m just not old enough yet 🙂


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