Sleep Culture: We’ve Been Doing it Wrong

Imagine what would happen if the Internet disappeared without warning. All of the servers just disintegrated. WiFi connections vanished. Trillions of dollars of information was suddenly gone. Computers are no longer a window to the world.

 Imagine how people the world over would grieve its loss… how devastating it would be to business, education, and communication.

 Yes, with the help of the pre-Internet generation, we would eventually remember how to get along without it. But the loss would be tremendous.

 Hopefully that won’t happen any time soon. But there is something, I believe, with potentially as much power as the Internet that we have lost. What’s most unfortunate is most people aren't even aware it’s missing.

 And frankly, the loss is making us sick—in mind, body, and in spirit.

 Let me explain…

 The Lost Sleep Culture

If I told you the best way to get a perfect night’s sleep was to not sleep all the way through the night, you’d probably tell me I looked a little tired.

 But, according to many researchers and historians, it’s the truth.

Thousands of years ago, humans used to sleep twice. The “first sleep” generally began around 8 p.m. and ended around midnight. Our ancestors would wake up for at least 90 minutes, do a few things, then continue on to their “second sleep,” waking again at sunrise.

sleep for health

This is the way we slept before artificial light was invented.

And our replacement for biologically programmed sleep—riddled with prescription drugs, flickering television screens, and doctors telling us we have to sleep 8 hours straight—is a sad, sad substitute.

 “Our modern way of doing things have their advantages, but I believe we should understand the costs,” says Jessa Gamble, an expert on natural sleep rhythms. (1)

A Time of Epic Sleep… and Epic Productivity

 After nearly twenty years of historical research, Virginia Tech history professor A. Roger Ekirch has documented over 500 literary references to this “polyphasic” sleeping pattern in his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Records of segmented sleep go back as early as the tales of the epic bard, Homer.(2)

 During the few waking hours before second sleep, people could actually get things done that mattered to them, but didn’t necessarily involve work. Things like…

  • Writing (especially poetry), reading, and studying
  • Praying or meditating
  • Analyzing dreams and doing revolutionary thinking
  • Making love

 These are the things that we try to fit into our waking day, but never seem to have enough time for. (Perhaps our ancestors knew a lot more about being productive than we do now?)

Scientific Proof of Segmented Sleep

It seems that our cultural thinking began to shift around 200 years ago, with the advent of gas lamps and all night coffee houses. In the 1920s, the electric light bulb ushered the last remaining wisps of the two shift sleep out of our culture… and now, with smart phones, TVs, and 24 hour business culture, it’s a miracle we get any sleep at all.

 And it’s not just Ekirch who has come to this conclusion.

 Researchers have proved (twice) that this apparently ancient way of sleeping is still programmed into our very DNA—it’s just been suppressed. We haven’t been evolved out of it, despite how hard electricity and sleeping pills have tried. 

 Cultures without artificial lighting (and clearly, smart phones and a 24/7 business culture) like the Nigerian Tiv tribe sleep in this exact manner. One anthropological study from the 1960s showed that the Tiv not only practice segmented sleep, they even use the same language for it as we see in historical texts: first sleep and second sleep.

 The biggest breakthrough came from Dr. Thomas Wehr’s study in 1992, during his time at the National Institute of Mental Health. During a month long experiment, Wehr placed participants in a completely dark room each day for 14 hours straight. They were allowed to sleep as much or as little as they wanted during the darkness.

 At first, they slept an average of 11 hours per night. But by the fourth week, they slept only eight hours… and in two distinctive blocks of three to five hours each. The blocks were separated by an hour or two of what the researchers called “peaceful wakefulness.” (3)

 But Weren’t They Exhausted?

 According to Gamble, nope. This polyphasic sleep during the night, combined with a midday siesta, actually allows you to feel even more awake during the day.

 “There is a surge of prolactin the likes of which a modern day never sees,” she explains in her now famous Ted Talk. Modern people who were able to reset their systems for segmented sleep reported “feeling so awake during the daytime that they realize they’re experiencing true wakefulness for the first time in their lives.” (1)

 Though the jury is still out on exactly why, scientists and polyphasic practitioners alike theorize that it’s because of the wild hormone roller coasters that control our sleep cycles.

 The hormone prolactin is one of the biggies. Prolactin is primarily responsible for lactation in mammals, but it has over 300 other functions that have been reported in a variety of animal studies. (4)

 According to the Polyphasic Society, a group dedicated to segmented sleep education, “This prolactin surge in the first segment of the night can be regulatory of the entire day’s hormonal secretions.”

 “Monophasic sleepers will only produce a very small dose of midnight prolactin, or not get it all,” they continue. “The result of no midnight prolactin surge is constantly secreted prolactin.” This leads to an extreme estrogen imbalance, seen especially in aging women. (5)

 The midnight prolactin surge is expressed as the “non-anxious” feeling during the time between shut-eye segments. Prolactin is also associated with happiness, relaxation, and contentment after sexual gratification. (Interestingly… it is also the hormone that allows hens to sit happily on their eggs for hours at a time.)

Reclaiming Our Sleep Culture

 The message we've been given is that people who wake up in the middle of the night have a disorder. They’re weird. But the truth is, those people simply are resisting the eight-hours-straight programming we've been fed since in the invention of the gas lamp.

 And of course, Big Pharma had to jump on that one too… creating a pill (advertised by radioactive moths) that nearly 9 million Americans now purchase and take, all under the false guise that a good night’s rest depends on eight straight hours of sleep. (6)

 Beyond all that… studies show that prescription sleeping “aids” don't actually work the way you might think they do. On average, they only increase your sleep time by 11 minutes. On top of it, the drugs can impede your brain’s ability to make short-term memories. So if you toss and turn all night, you won’t remember when you wake up (but you will wonder why you don’t feel more refreshed.) (7)

 “Many people wake up at night and panic,” says Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford. “I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.” (5)

 In brief? There’s nothing to fear if you “can't” sleep for eight hours straight. It’s your ancestry calling; something much more powerful than any sleeping pill could stamp out of you. Get up and enjoy your solitude during the witching hour. Do the things you wish you could do during the day, but never have time for.

 And please, stop taking those radioactive moth pills. They’re making you glow.


 (1) Gamble J. Our natural sleep cycle. Ted Talks.

 (2) Ekirch AR. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. 2006 Oct. 17. W.W. Norton & Company.

 (3) Wehr T. In short photoperiods, human sleep is biphasic. Journal of Sleep Research. 1992 Jun;1(2):103-107.

 (4) Boyle-Feysot C. Prolactin (PRL) and its receptor: actions, signal transduction pathways and phenotypes observed in PRL receptor knockout mice. Endocrine Reviews. 1998 Jun;19(3):225-68.

 (5) “Segmented Sleep.”  The Polyphasic Society.

 (6) Aleccia J. Sleepless in the states: Nearly 9 million pop pills for shut-eye. NBC News. 29 Aug. 2013.

 (7) Boyles S. “How Do Sleeping Pills Really Work?” WebMD: Sleep Disorders Health Center. 2012 Dec. 20.


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