awake in the night chatting to bed-fellows

One of my favourite topics is sleep, but not only because I love sleeping so much. I have such a complicated relationship with sleep, and I’m not sure exactly how to go about explaining it.

Some of my earliest memories are of desperately fighting for a later bedtime. My imagination led me to the certainty that all the real fun happened long after I was safely tucked in. When my parents finally gave up and stopped trying to regulate how much sleep I got, it was my brother, with whom I shared a room, who begged me to turn out the light so he could get some sleep.

It’s likely no surprise that as much as I liked staying up late, I loathed getting up early. For the most part, I still do. Yet what’s curious is that I’ve gone through periods of my life in which I got up early. During those times, I’d also get to bed much earlier than normal. Seems logical, doesn’t it?

Over the years, I’ve toyed with a multitude of sleep patterns and where I’ve almost always started is with my bedtime. If you want better sleep, go to bed earlier. Right? Not so sure. Actually, I’ve been hearing more and more about what impact when you wake up has, but I’ll talk about that later.

There are people who spend a great deal of time researching sleep. I’m always drawn to articles in the paper about related to how much sleep one needs. It’s bordering on an obsession for me.

So imagine my delight when I found The myth of the eight-hour sleep by Stephanie Hegarty on the BBC website.  This is exactly the sort of thing that perks my ears up. That’s right. Not everyone needs eight hours. It’s a myth. Or a conspiracy. Or both a myth and a conspiracy. I should slow down here. The article has nothing to do with conspiracy. That was me jumping to conclusions.

But what it does suggest is that the idea of eight consecutive hours of sleep might not be the most natural way for us to sleep.

Here’s how the experiment is described in the article:

‘In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.’

The article wonders why people insist on eight uninterrupted hours, and I find myself wondering the same thing. Now let’s go back to why I’ve tried so many different strategies over the years. Someone told me when I was quite young that many really productive people didn’t need so much sleep. The idea was that one could train the body to demand less sleep. I’ve actually slowly come to the conclusion that it’s pointless to do this if your body demands more sleep (incidentally Andreas Heinakroon has explained to me that the body doesn’t, in fact, need sleep. Sleep is actually necessary for your brain. For my purposes, your brain’s part of your body – ergo your body needs sleep).

Although the question still remains for me: is there something I can do to lessen this need for sleep? What’s the point anyway? Why not just go to bed like a normal person and be done with all of this? Well, if you know me at all, you know that I do very few things like a normal person. So why go to all this trouble? What do these people do, who get up in the night after their first sleep of roughly four hours?

The article goes on to explain it with:

‘During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

And these hours weren’t entirely solitary – people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.’

Hey, this is starting to get interesting, isn’t it? Here’s how I understand this whole process: go to sleep when you first feel sleepy in the early evening, sleep roughly four hours or so, get up and have a sandwich, write a poem or a song or read a bit of that book that you never seem to have any time for. Before you slip back of to delicious slumber you can have a bit of what I’ll euphemistically call a bit of the little death. If that is, in fact, your wont. What a wonderful way to return to your second sleep of the night.

I should tell you that the rest of the article that I linked to above is worth reading. She goes on to talk about how modernity in various forms pushed us towards eight hours of sleep rather than all of this ‘getting up in the night for the real fun’ nonsense. She cites a new book by Craig Koslofsky called Evening’s Empire, which talks about the history of people staying up all night. That’s for another blogpost, though.

I’m off for at least my first sleep of the night.


  1. Our modern relationship with sleep is similar to our relationship with food. Most of our habits for both are taught to us by our parents. “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” Although both are important, it takes most of us many years to understand what foods and how much sleep is good for us. I’m sure we all vary. But because many don’t sleep very well, or never get enough deep sleep, I offer this. Increasingly we are not as disciplined as previous generations with our eating habits, meals times etc and some have more and more ‘devices’ in our bedrooms – TV’s, computers, smart-phones etc. These tempt us to either stay wake later, or maybe tempt us to ‘wake up’ when we should be resting. If people around you are grumpy, I bet it is linked to their sleep patterns, and possibly their diet/meal patterns.

    Interesting topic – thanks for the post – I’m off to bed – it’s 22:06 on my laptop!

    1. Exactly the sort of thing I was thinking about when I wrote this.

      I’m finally heading the same place. Well, not in blackrocket2000’s bed. That’d be weird.

      Oh, and the only reason I’m still awake is exactly what BR2000 mentioned: all these devices in the bedroom. Computers and phones and such…not kinky devices. What do you take me for?

  2. I love this. I still haven’t finished processing. Also, and this really isn’t on topic (I know, I know, SURPRISE, AMY), but you have such an eye for choosing the best image for your posts.

    I have such a love/hate relationship with sleep, and have since I was young. Because I can’t. Sleep. Not on my own. Not without drugs to make it happen. No matter how tired I am. Luckily, about ten years ago, I found something that works for me, and it quiets my brain down enough (which is the problem – I have a very, very loud brain, and it doesn’t ever shh enough that I can fall asleep, YES, I’m aware that’s not a medical diagnosis) that I can fall asleep. Sometimes I can even stay there for 4-6 hours a night, which is nice.

    I don’t know how I feel about breaking up of sleep. I like the idea of it. It sounds so nice, and civilized. Which might be just how you’ve described it. You could probably make bearbaiting sound the same way. But I just think that would take up so much TIME. Sleep. Wake. Do some things. MORE sleep. Ugh. Honestly, I’ll be happier when we can get rid of the need for it altogether. I have a lot of things to do, you see. And I could really use those hours I spend sleeping doing more things.

    Also, what if I HAD to pray? I would be awful at that. I’ll take the sandwich and the illicit middle-of-the-night sex, though. Those seem like good ideas.

  3. …and all you really miss is crappy telly.

    i used to work during the evening, back stage at les mis, for quite a time, and i never minded missing that bit of the day. i often went out after work or else went home and hung out with my nocturnal flatmates for a few hours before going to bed.

    more recently i have been in the habit of going to bed about 7. presumably because of the drugs i took for sleep, that was me until 7 in the morning, but i am most productive in the morning, so it suited me okay. nowadays i retire a bit later, but i wouldn’t mind exploring the two sleeps regimen.

  4. I can’t place it, but there was a study about 45 minute sleep intervals spaced throughout the day being ideal. You ended up only getting about 4 hours of sleep, but you were better rested. It’s been so long I need to google it.

    I get between 5 and 6 hours a night. I don’t go to bed much before 12 typically, and wake up at 5:30 for work. On the weekends I can’t sleep in past about 8:30.

    I do alright.

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