Sleepers Awake

Some of the smartest people I know send me an occasional e-mail bearing a time stamp of 2:30 or 3:30 a.m.

I’m familiar with the syndrome. You go to sleep and all is well until sometime between 2 and 4, when you awaken to find that you’re no longer sleepy.

So you get up and read for a while, send a few e-mails, do a crossword or Sudoku, or write an essay like this one – rather than just lie there like the proverbial dyslexic agnostic insomniac who tossed and turned all night worrying about the existence of dog. (Sorry for dusting off that beloved relic, but if you don’t say it aloud at least once this year, you won’t be able to remember it next year.)

I don’t want to make light of real sleep disorders. Chronic or acute insomnia, often related to anxiety or depression, can be a troubling, sometimes disabling affliction.

But we who stalk the corridors for an hour or two and then go back to sleep are experiencing a much milder malady – let’s call it sleepus interruptus.

For committed classicists, that should be somniculosis interruptus; but, either way, it is not a disease in search of a cure. In fact, it may even be good for you. In a recent article for BBC World Service, Stephanie Hegarty cited a growing body of evidence from both science and history that the eight-hour sleep we’ve all been taught to expect may actually be unnatural.

Pharmaceutical companies are not going to appreciate this line of thinking. They’re taking in $5 billion a year for sleeping pills (the so-called Z drugs) and spending $325 million a year on advertising to increase that haul. Some other night, we’ll write about $5,000 mattresses.

A few independent researchers have concluded that “America’s sleep problem” is an invention of Big Pharma, circa 1991, when G. D. Searle introduced Ambien. Others are concerned by the strange side effects –- such as sleepwalking and short-term amnesia — of some of the more popular prescriptions. After all, Z drugs such as Ambien and Lunesta are designed to tinker with one or another of our neurotransmitters, and some of us would rather not let their green moths into our brains.

Especially not when it’s a supposed solution to a non-problem.

Hegarty points to the extensive historical studies of Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech, — author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past — showing that humans used to sleep in two distinct cycles, not a single 8-hour shift. He includes over 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – from diaries, court records, medical books, and from literature, including Dickens, Cervantes, and all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey.

These references describe a first sleep starting about two hours after dusk, followed by a waking period of one or two hours, then a second sleep.

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

During the waking period, people often got up, went to the john, sometimes visited neighbors, or stayed in bed, chatted, read, wrote, had sex, or prayed. Prayer manuals from the late 15th century included special prayers for the hours between first and second sleeps.

Such references began to disappear in the late 17th century, first among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and then, over the next 200 years, through the rest of Western society – roughly the timing of the industrial revolution.

So sleepus interruptus doesn’t call for a pill or a psychiatrist. We should all enjoy the interruption, maybe send some e-mails to Al, knowing that worrying about non-existent insomnia could keep a person awake.

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About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.