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