For those of us who can’t get with the idea of “wind down in the evening, sleep soundly all night, and get up in the morning,” advice on warm baths and lavender-spritzed pillows is just downright irritating.
But what if we’re right, and everyone else is wrong?
What if there are totally different ways of sleeping, and everyone is suited to a different one? Could it be that the commonly accepted idea of a “good night’s sleep” is, well, a modern invention?
Say hello to biphasic sleeping (aka bimodal, polyphasic, split or segmented sleeping).
If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night, feeling strangely refreshed and not at all tempted to snuggle back under the comforter, then this will make a whole lot of sense. And if you’ve ever taken a sneaky midday nap, you’re already, technically, a segmented sleeper.
Here’s the concept in a nutshell: a biphasic sleep schedule is based on the idea that our natural body clocks are better suited for two shorter chunks of sleep rather than one long one, and science seems to support it.
Researchers are starting to think we slept twice for most of humanity’s existence – and this isn’t just a hunch someone had. Throughout history, there have been numerous accounts of segmented sleep, from medical texts to court records and diaries.
In this academic article, historian A. Roger Ekirch offers many examples from Brazilian tribes to farmers in Nigeria having a ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep. He argues that our tendency for one long sleep at night is a result of artificial illumination and the rise of the industrial age, where people started to work regimented, daytime shifts (that’s the good ol’ 9-5 we all seem on board with).
Anthropologists have also found evidence that in pre-industrial Europe there was no such thing as a set bedtime (how many of us strive to get to bed before 11 pm?), but that sleep onset was determined by whether there were things to do or how sleepy people felt.
In a 2006 research paper, “The Nature of Spontaneous Sleep Across Adulthood,” the authors point out that segmented sleep is the rule, rather than the exception, across the animal kingdom and that there’s little reason to believe that the human sleep/wake system should have evolved in a fundamentally different way. Packing long working hours, caffeine, and increased physical activity into our days may be how we have adapted to our current habit of a solid 6-8 hour night.
So what does biphasic sleep look like?
Well, Ekirch’s book “At Day’s Close” describes how households of the past lay down for the first time a couple of hours after dusk, woke a few hours later for one to two hours, and then had a second sleep until dawn. During this waking period, people would relax, meditate, chat around the fire, or have sex. Some would engage in light housework, relying on the light of the moon or oil lamps.
This 2014 article in the Journal of Sleep Medicine came to the same conclusion. 1 AM yoga session anyone?
And get this, people who claim that biphasic sleep is a more natural process for humans don’t just have historical texts in their favour. In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted a lab experiment where he changed up a group’s light schedule for a month. Instead of being in darkness for 8 hours, as most of us are used to, he extended it to ten hours, and after a few weeks of acclimatization, a clear two-phase sleep pattern emerged. The group slept first for four hours, then woke up naturally for one to three hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep. Sounds a whole lot like biphasic sleep is a natural, biological process, right?
Could this be worth a try?
Well, at this point, monophasic sleep – one big chunk – is typical, and most people have adapted to it. However, biphasic and even polyphasic (lots of smaller periods of sleep) patterns seem to come much more naturally to some people. Obviously, it can also come down to cultural influence. In places like Spain and Greece, it’s the norm to take anything from a 20-minute to 2-hour nap in the late afternoon.
Depending on your work and family commitments, it could give you greater flexibility – doing a little work while the kids are asleep, for example, or getting up earlier and giving in, guilt-free, to the post-lunch sleepiness.
Many who are already doing this cite more alertness, creativity, and focus throughout the day. Rather than starting the day rested and getting progressively sleepier and less productive as the end of the workday nears (does anyone really do anything in an office at 5 pm?)
If this sounds like something that could work for you, give it a try. You may well discover a rhythm that works better for your lifestyle.
What we’re not suggesting, however, is an eight-hour sleep at night and a few naps during the day. If you feel the need for that much sleep it may be time to see a specialist… or a life coach!