The history of “first sleep” and “second sleep” holds surprising lessons about preindustrial life, 21st-century anxiety, and the problem with digging for utopia in the past.
At 3 a.m. I’m jolted awake. The room is dark and still. I grab my phone and scan sports scores and Twitter. Still awake. A faceless physician whispers in my mind: To overcome middle-of-the-night insomnia, experts say you ought to get out of bed … I get out of bed. I pour a glass of water and drink it. I go back to bed. Still awake. Perhaps you know the feeling. Like millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people around the world, I suffer from so-called mid-sleep awakenings that can keep me up for hours.
One day, I was researching my nocturnal issues when I discovered a cottage industry of writers and sleep hackers who claim that sleep is a nightmare because of the industrial revolution, of all things. Essays in The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine recommended an old fix for restlessness called “segmented sleep.” In premodern Europe, and perhaps centuries earlier, people routinely went to sleep around nightfall and woke up around midnight—only to go back to sleep a few hours later, until morning. They slept sort of like I do, but they were Zen about it. Then, the hackers claim, modernity came along and ruined everything by pressuring everybody to sleep in one big chunk.