In a previous post on the Brother Cadfael mysteries I mentioned the practice of rising at midnight for prayer. I had often wondered how this was so easily accomplished by the monks. After the post I thought about it again. Why weren’t they dragging around the monastery bleary-eyed after never getting a decent night’s sleep. Surely some would have trouble either getting up at midnight or at dawn the next morning. So I did a little research and discovered the secret of the monks amazing stamina. It actually was not amazing stamina at all. It was very ordinary energy levels and perfectly fulfilling sleep. It is we, the people of the post-industrial age, who are dragging our anchors, so to speak; low on energy and sleep deprived in spite of having the whole night to devote to getting it.
In the early 1990s, a team headed by Thomas A. Wehr, MD, a psychiatrist and then a sleep researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month. This was a shift of their light/dark schedule from their usual 16 hours of light and 8 hours of dark to only 10 hours of natural and artificial light each day. These durations of light and dark are similar to the natural length of day and night in winter. It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep. This is exactly the pattern of sleep required by the monks to meet their obligations of prayer.
So the monks were not struggling to rise at midnight, nor at dawn. It would seem this was the normal pattern of their sleep. The research would seem to show they lived in harmony not just with the prayer regime of the rule of St. Benedict but with their own natural circadian rhythms. Dr. Wehr’s research appeared in scientific journals and I wanted to learn more than what was revealed in the PubMed abstract. (link at bottom of post for those interested) I then discovered the work of Roger Ekirch, a professor of History at Virginia Tech. In his book At Day’s Close, which is, as it’s subtitle says is a history of nighttime, an entire chapter is devoted to the history of pre-industrial sleep patterns.
After sixteen years of research he published a paper which eventually led to his book. His research documented that for millenia that we didn’t always sleep in one eight-hour chunk. he pattern was more like that of Dr. Wehr’s subjects, in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning. References were found as far back as Homer in ancient Greece and Livy and Virgil in ancient Rome. He found references scattered throughout literature, court documents, journals, letters and other personal papers. He was surprised not only about the unexpected pattern but that the idea was so accepted as normal. “It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch said.
As we know, this practice eventually died out. Ekirch attribute the change to the advent of artificial lighting, first street lighting and eventually electric indoor light. Craig Koslofsky, author of another book on the night, Evening’s Empire, offers a further theory in his book. With the advent of more street lighting, night stopped being the domain of criminals and became safe additional time for work or socializing. The idea of two sleeps became considered a wasteful way to spend these hours. Whatever the causes, shortly after the turn of the 20th century the notion of two sleeps had vanished from common knowledge.
Sleep deprivation is a serious problem today, noted by safety experts and insurance companies. Sleep deprivation is impacting educational efforts and health outcomes. The participants in Dr, Wehr’s study at first would sleep huge stretches of time, apparently making up for sleep debt that’s almost universal in the industrialized world. Once they had caught up on their sleep though, they began to have two sleeps. Still, once this began, they slept not more than eight hours total. Part of the sleep deprivation problem is related to the perception a solid block of sleep is needed. People wake in the night and then spend the hours worrying about why they woke and struggling to get back to sleep where their ancestors calmly and quietly found something to occupy the time.
Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford, shares this point of view and points out that even with standard sleep patterns, this night waking isn’t always cause for concern. “Many people wake up at night and panic,” he says. “I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.” But the majority of doctors still fail to acknowledge that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural. “Over 30% of the medical problems that doctors are faced with stem directly or indirectly from sleep. But sleep has been ignored in medical training and there are very few centres where sleep is studied,” he says.
I found all this fascinating. I often wake up in the middle of the night. The neighborhood can be noisy or the cats can go wild, but often there is no external stimulus. I like to read so years ago I got in the habit of having a book on the nightstand. Sometimes I even get up and do some small chore in the kitchen or tidy my desk. In thinking of Cadfael and the monks and all they managed to accomplish in their day I’ve decided to try an experiment. I am going to try and schedule my day in a similar fashion. It will have to be in gradual steps and I don’t have a church bell tolling to help me wake in the night. But someone else ran some similar experiments and I found useful advice in writer J. D. Moyers blog.
I’ll be starting by breaking some habits, firstly closing up the laptop earlier. I committed to reading 36 books this year on my Goodreads challenge. Last year I didn’t come close to a much lower goal so this will be an incentive. It will not be possible to go without electric light right away as Moyers and his family did but it’s on the list. You may think I have gone a little crazy but I encourage yu to read his blog post and let me know what you think of my experiment. We all want to sleep well and be more productive ans i look forward to the test.
Link to PubMed synopsis of Dr. Wehr’s paper. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10607034
Outside of a scientific setting, this kind of sleep pattern is still attainable, but it does require changing our modern, electric lifestyle.