Most people believe that life can become a bit of a nightmare without getting an unbroken eight hours of shuteye each night – but sleep experts are arguing the case for the broken sleep pattern.
Historian Roger Ekirch from Virgina Tech has been researching sleep for the past 16 years and has produced a wealth of evidence that it is perfectly normal for slumber to be interrupted. In fact, one sleep expert even suggests that broken nighttime patterns can help regulate stress.
Sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs told the BBC World Service during a debate: “For most of evolution we slept a certain way. Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology.” He added that when people were forced into periods of rest and relaxation, this increased the ability to keep stress under control.
Ekirch, meanwhile, in his book At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past, references more than 500 examples of disrupted sleep patterns throughout history. The evidence ranges from diaries to court records, and medical text books to classic literature, including Homer’s Odyssey.
Not only did people in the past sleep in stretches, but some used the periods when they were awake to pray, smoke or even visit neighbours.
Also taking part in the BBC debate was Russell Foster, a professor of body clock neuroscience at the University of Oxford, who concurred with the other experts. He said: “Many people wake up at night and panic. I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.”