Dead Sleep, Second Sleep

I have been burning the candle at both ends, alas.

My work days are long and arduous at present; and my home life a constant source of wonder. I like to use my evenings cooking and talking to those I love best, writing and listening and watching.

Yet a teacher generally has two choices; prepare thoroughly or go down in flames. The preparation must come from somewhere. And accordingly, every morning at 5am I rise, and pad off to my papers to plan a day of education.

Anyone who has had to rise early will tell you how the mind prepares for that 5am alarm. It wakes one, regularly, through the night, to check whether the hour for rising has arrived.

And finally, tonight, the candle flames have met in the middle. I am knackered.

America’s Sleep Foundation cites studies which indicate that a healthy adult needs between seven to eight hours per night. And furthermore, if we don’t get our correct dose of sleep, we may well face a plethora of problems including increased risk of accidents, obesity (we have increased appetite when we’re sleep deprived) psychiatric problems and attention deficit.

But they add that sleep is an individual thing. It depends on who you are, and where in the world you live.

And, indeed, when in the world you have lived.

And now I  lean heavily on the research of a singular academic, one A Roger Ekirch, of Virginia Tech, who spent 20 years delving into history to uncover evidence of one of the most extraordinary changes in sleeping pattern of which I have ever heard.

In England, before the industrial revolution, our people did not have one sleep, but two.

The first, an exhausted slumber, possibly after  a hard day of labour, was called here on the islands Dead Sleep. It was that  sleep one cannot avoid: when one os too tired to move, and keeps nodding off. We’ve all been there, trying to keep our eyes open to talk and interact until a reasonable hour.

Those in pre-industrial Britain did not fight it. They came home, they nodded off.

But what is extraordinary was that they woke, some time in the early hours, refreshed.

These days, ome would call it insomnia: yet hundreds of years ago they would light the candles, and sit up in bed, and talk, or read. Or procreate; or contemplate. The country was awake, at 2am, yet, says Ekirch, it was deeply peaceful.

He quotes an anonymous Irishman in the manuscript Journeys from Dublin to London, 1761, 1773,  leaving London from Dublin in a carriage between midnight and one: “twas nigh an hour” before he “cleared the suburbs, where the people had not yet gone to bed as their Lights were not yet put out. Nay we discovered some faint glimmerings here and there as we drove thru Highgate.”

Between one and two a.m., the coach and its passengers passed through Barnet, six miles to the north of Highgate. In this Hertfordshire town, noted the traveler, the “Good Folks seemed to be in their first sleep.”

Ekrich’s paper is well worth a read: a colourful testament to the wealth of writing about a habit which was simply routine back then: a quiet time of contemplation and talk in the early hours before a second sleep.

And it seems we are programmed to have this singular, recharging time.

There’s this hormone called prolactin.

Where dopamine arouses, prolactin calms in the most rewarding way. Too much can result in no libido: just enough can facilitate the same calm which accompanies sleep… only in a waking state.

And in the early hours of the morning when our forebears woke, prolactin would have been at high levels in their brain.

Dr Thomas Wehr, at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, likens this to the state of meditation. It’s just possible that the time between dead sleep and second sleep was a very special time for earlier peoples. A time when the cares of the day were far behind and far in front; when one could be with those one loved in a night capsule of calm, and reflect.

The reason we don’t wake the same way now? Electric light.

In experiments by Dr Wehr, subjects who lived without an electric light source for a certain length of time began, once again, to wake for Happy Hour.

And there’s more.

Because after the REM dreams of dead sleep, a time to wake and think allows us to reflect on our dreams. Ekrich speculates: in losing this night hour; have we grown increasingly distant from the lessons they can teach us?

So next time I wake at 2:30, and feel wakeful: I might just think, or write, or read.

And see what happens.


Image source here


42 thoughts on “Dead Sleep, Second Sleep

  1. I once read about a study that deprived people of natural light and their sleep patterns changed, to about four hours at a time, at different times of the day and night. A similar thing happens in Big Brother.

    1. It’s an amazing area, sleep research – I’ve not heard the natural light one. Don’t think I’d volunteer for it…and Big Brother – there’s an angle I hadn’t thought of! Thanks!

  2. LOL… \O/ Hallelujah … Ekrich has Nothing on you!!!
    I love this… “And finally, tonight, the candle flames have met in the middle. I am knackered”

    You hang in there girl…

    There is more substance in you than e’er there was, in the wax between two ends.
    Bless You

  3. Very interesting stuff, I am one that gets up daily at 3:30 am to go to the gym and then back home for breakfast, some TV and catch up on blog world. I then leave for the office at 7 am. I generally get to bed about 10 pm and find that I always….always wake up about 1:30 am or 2:00 and I get up, walk about for a moment or two and then look forward to going back to sleep until 3:30 rolls around. I do basically the same on the weekend except I sleep in until 4 am and take it from there.

    I have done this for most of my adult life and found that I don’t feel any more rested if I try to get 7 or 8 hours sleep, my body just gets up after about 5 or 5 and a half.

    I think that everyone finds their own rhythm for sleep and makes it work for them.

  4. Oddly enough, when I sleep at our younger daughter’s house, home of Kezzie, I enjoy my best sleep. Their house is very quiet and very, very dark at night. (Or, I’m completely zonked from chasing a toddler.) Still, wherever I rest my head, I’m up about 2:15 am, no matter what time I go to bed. I usually get up and then right back to sleep, but, on occasion, when I can’t get back to sleep, I’m on the computer, reading, writing, folding laundry and pick up a few more hours later.

    I need that deep sleep to function properly. I wish I had the discipline to write down my thoughts and my dreams in the middle of the night. I used to do it, when younger, and that was very interesting, indeed. Hmmmm, much food for thought, Kate, and another intriguing post from one of my favorite bloggers.

  5. Wow, great post.
    We haven’t had TV in 5 yrs. On some nights, when we watch something on the computer (movie or web TV) we always stay up past due. But most nights, when we lay around and read or talk or write or whatnot, we’ll sleep when our bodies tell us to.
    this is an intriguing look at what electricity did to our sleep patterns.
    Great post.

    1. Hi EllieAnn, and thanks for coming over and commenting 🙂 Your household sounds great: no TV! It’s interesting that films tempt you to stay up when you would naturally sleep…

  6. Loved this reassuring and informing post, Kate. I often find my most vivid dreams remembered when I fall back to sleep for that second sleep. I once spent two months in solitude and though I had electricity in the cottage my dreams took flight – routinely remembered 3 – 5 a night…I thought surely their constancy would remain after returning to normal life but they did not.

    I also love naps – just 10 minutes can revive me for hours. A “knackered” woman might need a few such moments of repose.

  7. Oh my goodness, but I find this fascinating! I will be interested in digesting info a bit and seeing what I might try to encapsulate into my own over-stretched schedule! I do so often wake up after that first sleep, but I ignore the prompting perhaps! I love the idea of early morning contemplation time. And yes, a teacher’s life with a family…I’m even more in awe with how you do it, Kate. I was a teacher for many years and I never had enough time. I’m so intruged by this post 🙂 Debra

  8. If you wake up, light a candle, then tap Phil on his shoulder and say, in serious tones, “We need to talk.”

    That’ll wake him up for Happy Hour in a hurry. 😯

  9. …Increased risk of accidents, obesity, psychiatric problems and attention deficit… that sounds just like me!!! I thought I was sleeping quite well, too, although I do occasionally wake once or twice (sometimes three times) during the night. I have to, Kate, at times, because of the dreams… I always enjoy my second sleep for some reason, which ties in with what you are saying. Very interesting post!

  10. When I wake in the middle of the night, I do read. Your blog and others that publish in my night are my primary reads, though sometimes it is books. I am the same as you. When I have to wake up really early, I don’t sleep at all.

    1. The blogging world is 24 hour, and I never cease to love that aspect of it, Andra. I love the fact it continues to rumble on while I sleep, and there are always surprises for me when I wake in the night.

    1. It’s certainly a thought, Belle! I don’t think one even has to try: even if you just bibble the time away I think the quality of what you do and think at this time might be really good.

  11. Greetings Kate. Sorry, I haven’t had time until now to say what a wonderful, illuminating blog this is. I had no idea about first and second sleep, but it makes perfect sense.

    I don’t know about waking up and feeling peaceful though. When I wake at 3am it’s usually because my subconscious has suddenly come across something I should remember, or haven’t done!

    I think my “first sleep” is probably the one from 9pm if I’m in front of the TV! 🙂

    1. So glad it proved useful, Jan. I know the feeling- I often wake up with a conclusion or a realisation. And that exhausted conking out in front of the TV sounds very much like first sleep.

  12. Totally fascinating, Kate! How on earth did you even come across A Roger Ekirch, of Virginia Tech? I’m much more aware of light and sleep now that I don’t have to get up for work and can live more naturally. I choose to get up earlier for meditation, but I generally follow the light. It feels so much better.

    My mother and father lived their last 10 years having two sleeps. Dad used to complain because he felt his sleep was disrupted and that it could not be good for one’s health.

    A shaman woman from one of our First Nations told me that we wake up around 3 a.m. because that is when the spirit world is trying to get our attention. She quickly added, “But they won’t bother you unless you want to connect.” 🙂

    However, does this mean the aboriginals operated on this 1st and 2nd sleep basis? Very fascinating.

  13. It just goes to show that napping isn’t only meant for children… That second lighter sleep strikes me like an early morning nap of sorts.

    Just another way we’ve maybe lost our way a little…

  14. This gives me hope! I obsess about my sleep, or rather lack of it, too much. (Another symptom of my unhealthy preoccupation with time management, or lack of it!! 😀 ) Often I find if I wake i the night and start worrying about things it stops me from getting back to sleep. But I think I will try to view that time differently from now on. Perhaps I should go to bed earlier to allow for that time!! 😀

Leave a Reply to Andra Watkins Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s