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Humans never used to sleep for 8 hours per night!

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Humans never used to sleep for 8 hours per night!

Did you know that a couple of hundred years ago humans changed their sleeping patterns? For thousands of years, we did not get the 7-8 hours of sleep per night associated with modern living and instead had 2 shorter naps. Research from the Polyphasic Society suggests we instead slept for 3 hours, woke and engaged in other activities for around 2-3 hours and then went back to sleep for another 3 hours.

There are lots of reasons as to why this makes sense if we go back as far as our cavemen ancestors. The night is fraught with danger as nocturnal predators come out, this is reason enough to keep you awake at night. But we also engaged in hunting ourselves in the night time as smaller fish moved into shallow waters. Another good reason to wake was to combat the intense cold, as you sleep your body temperature also drops. Without modern insulating materials extended sleep in cold conditions can be harmful to your body.

So we started with this pattern for good reason and it continued, right up until the 16th century. Sure our ancestors around this time did not face the same problems as our cavemen scenario but the sleeping pattern had taken hold, it is just what people, where used to, much like many people, are used to one long sleep today. Over the years the period of wakefulness grew to be considered a special time where religious prayers were given and very often coincided with the dawn of a new day. It really was a special time of the day to our ancestors. There is evidence to suggest that in the 16th century people believed the best time to conceive was after the 1st sleep of the night, this reference found from a french doctors journal.

So what made us change this pattern only a relative few years ago, the short answer is work and our environment. Yes, the industrial revolution came along and dictated that workers need to put in long shifts at the factory or mills, artificial light also started to become more widespread. As we advanced and became more insulated and advanced, all the traditional reasons for waking slowly gave way and a solid block of rest crept into society. It began in the 16th century in Europe and spread, by the time the 17th century had turned our segmented sleep pattern had all but vanished.

You can still see remnants of the old style of sleeping in existence though, think of the Spanish Siesta. The segmented sleep discussed is not too dissimilar to the practice often associated with living in Spain and has evolved straight from our old sleeping patterns. The Siesta was actually widespread around much of Europe as we evolved our sleeping pattern but it disappeared in the majority of places.

As Jessa Gamble discusses, I wonder what it would be like if we returned to this natural pattern? Would we feel better about ourselves? Some people who wake in the night might attribute the waking to some alternative issue, stress perhaps. But what if we are really supposed to wake and you may be doing what is a consequence of just being human.


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