The myth of the 8-hour sleep

Historically, people slept for four hours, woke up for a couple of hours, then fell back asleep for another four hours, according to historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech. In 2001, he "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."

His book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern - in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer's Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

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.

A doctor's manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better".
BBC: The myth of the eight-hour sleep (Via TYWKIWWDBI)


    1. I’ll often wake up because one of them is coughing up a hairball on the floor right beside my bed. Thanks guys!

      1.  LOL. Nothing like the sound of ‘hcccckkkkk, hcccckkkkkkkk’ while you worry if they’re doing it over the silk shirt or new jeans you left on the floor.

        1. Or, more likely for me, into one of the dozen or so pairs of shoes lying about. That’s worse, I assure you :P

          1. One of the shoes if you’re lucky. The slippers you put on first thing in the morning (after forgetting about it overnight) if you’re not. Nasty!

  1. This is an amazing book. I read it when it came out, and highly recommend it to anyone trying to figure out why the hell they can’t sleep thru the night. Or anyone, really – it’s just a fascinating read.

    More importantly, it also freed me from the (societally-imposed) notion that an 8-hr sleep is the only way to go. Now I get up when I wake up (at 3 or 4am) and read, meditate, practise my guitar or whatever for half an hour or so, then go back to bed and sleep ’til 7-ish. It’s allowed me to actually wake up feeling refreshed instead of even MORE tired than when I went to bed!

  2. In his book The Head Tip, Jeff Warren talks about this and about this. If I remember, he ties it into the ability to make light at all hours and heads up north to Hudson’s Bay to live for a while without electricity. He writes about how eventually he’d go to bed shortly after sunset, which I think is about 4 or 5pm and then awakens at around 10p to 2a. Exactly what they describe here. 

    Apparently if you just don’t turn on any lights brighter than a candle, you should be able to fall asleep again in about an hour. If you turn on a light though, you begin a cascade of chemicals in your body, tricking it into thinking it’s morning and time to get up. Then you’re hooped. 

    Here’s a link to his book:

  3. Unfortunately, I can barely squeeze in 8 hours of sleep per day. It’s frequently closer to 7. Adding in 2 hours of idle time in the middle of the night simply isn’t an option.. 9 to 5 job and a zillion hobbies mean I cling to every free minute I can get my  hands on.

    I don’t even know what I’d do with those two hours. It’s not enough time to dig into any serious projects, and too much time to piss it away sitting around idling.I think the reasonable solution is to slow down the earth’s rotation so I can get a 30 hour day, making 10 hours devoted to recuperation perfectly reasonable.

  4. Sounds more like: Get home from work, have a snack and take a nap. Wake from nap ~11pm, make some dinner, chill for a bit, go to bed again. Wake around 6. I do that all the time, except for the nap part.

  5. All I know is that I’ve got a four-week-old and if someone’s trying to tell me there’s something better than sleeping eight hours in a row, I say “F that noise.”

    1. If you’re mom, it could be a very long time before you get 8 hours uninterrupted.  Oh, but that first night you get a mere 6 hours uninterrupted is going to feel like manna. 

      1. Unless you have the experience we did, which was waking up, realizing how long you’d slept and thinking something was wrong with the baby. First time parents, of course . . .

      2. If you’re mom, it could be a very long time before you get 8 hours uninterrupted.

        Pro-tip: Have a fat baby.

    2. That’s part of the premise of the article. The baby is acting normal.  It’s the adults that are trying to maintain an unnatural schedule.

  6. so, does that mean that those of us who can sleep 8 hours at a stretch, and really enjoy it, are we MORE evolved — or less? : )

      1. Um…  Whether he’s more evolved or less I certainly can’t say, but it clearly means franko doesn’t suffer from insomnia.  Buzzkill.  I know.

  7. Does anyone else find that they sleep more comfortably when their head is oriented a certain direction? I swear I sleep better when my head is lying at the West end of a room, with my feet going eastward, to greet the rising dawn. Something about “feeling” the centrifugal force of a turning planet? Maybe I’m just weird.

    1.  I find I have to sleep in certain orientations to feel comfortable, but for me it’s more my OCD or my autism latching onto a space and saying “You must be THIS WAY or we will nag you so hard you’ll never get to sleep!”

    2.  (“He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates 2 dimensional thinking.” –Spock)  …definitely, head-downwards, that way the Van-Allen belt can’t find you.

    3.  I definitely sleep better when my room catches more early morning light, but it doesn’t matter which direction my body is actually pointing.

  8. Oh, I so wish I could manage 8 hours per night – 8 hours and a break in the middle sounds even better. 

  9. Yeah, I heard this a while ago (on, of all places). Turns out that the way people *used* to do something isn’t necessarily the healthiest. Although the article does cite a few doctors who agree with segmented sleeping, it admits that they are the minority. Before jumping on the bandwagon, lets let scientists do a little more hard research on the topic.

    1. Shouldn’t that be used to do ‘everything’? It seems not unreasonable to suggest some things we do better now and some worse. As for sleep patterns I think variability among individuals and at different times and places is natural. I lived in Seville for three years and found it natural to take a siesta, not eat dinner till after midnight and sleep only four or five hours from early to mid morning. I feel no need to do that here in London now.

    2. Right!  Humans used to have a 40-year lifespan and not have the benefits of sanitation or medical or dental care.  The good old days weren’t necessarily all that good.

  10. Two notes: 1) I have a child that wakes up at least twice a night, sometimes as much as six. There are many nights where I’ve been forced to break up my sleep in two or more chunks, and have a perfectly normal day the next day, as long as I do get some sleep. 2) While serving in the Navy, it was also perfectly normal to have a four hour siesta, then go on “watch” for two to four hours, then get another chunk of sleep. This went on for weeks and months at a time. 

  11. Maybe I’m the abnormal one.  I get in bed, 1-2 minutes later I’m asleep.  If there is no alarm set I usually wake up 9-10 hours later.  That’s been pretty much standard for me since I was little.  I feel truly refreshed when I get those 9-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep.  I feel alright with 7 or 8.

  12. I need at least 8 1/2 hours sleep a night or I feel dreadful.  Low-powered pineal gland, I guess.

    Luckily, once I’m off, I’m off.  But if I do wake up in the night, it’s like I got no sleep at all.  So, if there is anything to this theory, you couldn’t tell it by me.

    1. More than 6.5 and I feel like crap all day. Of course, with pain issues, it takes 9 hours to get 6.5.

  13.  once I got to 3-4 hours at a time it allowed for deep sleep and I was a human. 1-2 hour chunks were not enough.

      1. I remember reading about an experiment years ago wherein the subjects lived deep underground for some time, with no reference to daylight and no clock. The electric lights were controlled by the subjects, as and when they felt the need for light. It turned out that the subjects’ periods of sleep would, after a while, get longer and longer until they were sleeping upward of (if I remember correctly) 16-18 hours at a stretch.

        1. Wow.  The morning breath must have been deadly.  And I find it difficult to imagine the bladder that could let one sleep so long without discomfort or unconscious release.

          1. If you’re sleeping, you’re not drinking. Which means you’re slowly dehydrating… which definitely cuts down on your need for peeing. Of course you don’t have to be asleep to control the need to pee this way. I know at two different OCD people who manage their water intake carefully so they don’t have to use a strange bathroom.

  14. Prior to about 1920 drinking patterns were dramatically different. Water sanitation, etc. If you drink half a bottle of wine before bed, don’t be surprised if you wake up halfway through the night as it starts to filter out of your system. It’s well documented that alcoholism causes sleep disruptions.

  15. Colin Beavan talks about this in his book “No Impact Man”, but seems to think it’s for the long-nighted winter months only.

  16. I have actually heard of a tribe of South American Indians who do something similar. Unfortunately, I forget what book that was in. If I get woken up at 4 hours, I’ll feel like crap even if I get back to sleep a couple of hours later. A solid 7 and I’m good. But of course, that’s anecdotal, so not worth much.

    I do think, though, that if most people wanted to do a 4-break-4 sleep pattern, nobody’s making them try to sleep 8 hours. You’d think plenty of people would have figured this out if they wanted to.

  17. Drinking or pot tend to cause exactly this 4+4 sleep pattern.  There was a lot of intoxicant use back before we “knew better”.

  18. Personally, I go to bed and sleep soundly and continuously for 7.5 hours then wake up like clockwork.  I don’t use an alarm except for late nights where I have to get up in less than 7.5 hours.

    I could only sleep in two smaller shifts with artificial means (like an alarm).  Although, I could imagine a world without artificial lighting where early darkness (say in winter) caused me to go to bed earlier than I wanted to and that might indeed change my sleeping pattern.

  19. Alternatively, you can just give up some of your “zillion” hobbies.

    er, this was intended to be reply @xzzy above

  20. There was some research years ago which said that sleeping in 3 hour increments was best.   I usually sleep about 9 hours in winter, and 6-7 in summer.  I used to manage on 3 hrs a night back in university, and that worked for me then.  Sleeping too much sometimes makes me tired.  My guess is that sleep is probably person specific, there can’t be the same rule working for everyone.

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