It is 4.18am. In the fireplace, where logs burned, there are now orange lumps that will soon be ash. Orion the Hunter is above the hill. Taurus, a sparkling V, is directly overhead, pointing to the Seven Sisters. Sirius, one of Orion’s heel dogs, is pumping red-blue-violet, like a galactic disco ball. As the night moves on, the old dog will set into the hill.
It is 4.18am and I am awake. Such early waking is often viewed as a disorder, a glitch in the body’s natural rhythm – a sign of depression or anxiety. It is true that when I wake at 4am I have a whirring mind. And, even though I am a happy person, if I lie in the dark my thoughts veer towards worry. I have found it better to get up than to lie in bed teetering on the edge of nocturnal lunacy.
If I write in these small hours, black thoughts become clear and colourful. They form themselves into words and sentences, hook one to the next – like elephants walking trunk to tail. My brain works differently at this time of night; I can only write, I cannot edit. I can only add, I cannot take away. I need my day-brain for finesse. I will work for several hours and then go back to bed.
All humans, animals, insects and birds have clocks inside, biological devices controlled by genes, proteins and molecular cascades. These inner clocks are connected to the ceaseless yet varying cycle of light and dark caused by the rotation and tilt of our planet. They drive primal physiological, neural and behavioural systems according to a roughly 24-hour cycle, otherwise known as our circadian rhythm, affecting our moods, desires, appetites, sleep patterns, and sense of the passage of time.
The Romans, Greeks and Incas woke up without iPhone alarms or digital radio clocks. Nature was their timekeeper: the rise of the sun, the dawn chorus, the needs of the field or livestock. Sundials and hourglasses recorded the passage of time until the 14th century when the first mechanical clocks were erected on churches and monasteries. By the 1800s, mechanical timepieces were widely worn on neck chains, wrists or lapels; appointments could be made and meal- or bed-times set.
Societies built around industrialisation and clock-time brought with them urgency and the concept of being ‘on time’ or having ‘wasted time’. Clock-time became increasingly out of synch with natural time, yet light and dark still dictated our working day and social structures.
Then, in the late 19th century, everything changed.
The lights got turned on.
Modern, electrical illumination revolutionised the night and, in turn, sleep. Prior to Edison, says the Virginia Tech historian A Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005), sleep had been divided into two distinct segments, separated by a period of night-waking that lasted between one and several hours. The pattern was called segmented sleep.
Sleep patterns of the past might surprise us today. While we might think that our circadian rhythm should wake us only as the sun rises, many animals and insects do not sleep in one uninterrupted block but in chunks of several hours at a time or in two distinct segments. Ekirch believes that humans, left to sleep naturally, would not sleep in a consolidated block either.
His arguments are based on 16 years of research during which he studied hundreds of historical documents from ancient to modern times, including diaries, court records, medical books and literature. He identified countless references to ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleeps in English. Other languages also describe this pattern, for example, premier sommeil in French, primo sonno in Italian and primo somno in Latin. It was the ordinariness of the allusions to segmented sleeping that led Ekirch to conclude this pattern was once common, an everyday cycle of sleeping and waking.
Before electric lighting, night was associated with crime and fear – people stayed inside and went early to bed. The time of their first sleep varied with season and social class, but usually commenced a couple of hours after dusk and lasted for three or four hours until, in the middle of the night, people naturally woke up. Prior to electric lighting, wealthier households often had other forms of artificial light – for instance, gas lamps – and in turn went to bed later. Interestingly, Ekirch found less reference to segmented sleep in personal papers from such households.
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