Challenging current thought
Also working against the clinical application of these findings is the extent to which they fly in the face of current thinking. The general public seems to regard 7 to 8 hours of unbroken sleep as our birthright; anything less means that something is awry. Sleep specialists share this assumption. Sleep researcher J. Todd Arnedt, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Michigan, acknowledges that the conventional approach to patients who cannot maintain sleep, and the one he uses, is to attempt to consolidate their sleep. He didn't know about the 2 bouts of sleep discovered by Ekirch and Wehr but, in light of that phenomenon, thinks that the conventional approach might not be the best one. He points out that how patients perceive their sleep determines to some extent how in fact they do sleep. He tries to get his patients with insomnia to "stop seeing their sleep as problematic." When they can do that, whatever sleep loss they encounter becomes more tolerable. If patients perceived interrupted sleep as normal, he points out, they might experience less distress when they awaken at night and fall back to sleep more easily.
Wehr agrees. He writes: "When modern humans find that their sleep is . . . interrupted by periods of wakefulness . . . they regard it as being disordered. . . . [A]n alternative explanation could be that a natural pattern of human sleep is breaking through into an artificial world in which it seems unfamiliar and unwelcome."
"Waking up after a couple of hours may not be insomnia," he says. "It may be normal sleep."4
Did the interval between bouts of sleep, common in earlier times, provide something of value or did our ancestors merely tolerate it? To be sure, this period offered our forebears an opportunity for uninterrupted sex, for quiet study, and for household chores.
Ekirch believes that the period of quiet wakefulness also offered a unique opportunity to contemplate dreams. People often awoke from a dreaming state and so were particularly likely to remember their dreams, and thus to gain access to an otherwise unavailable part of mental life. He believes that we may have lost something in our move to consolidated sleep.
Mary Carskadon, PhD, a sleep researcher at Brown University in Rhode Island, did not know of Ekirch's historical findings but did know of the segmented sleep pattern discovered by Wehr and of the fact that some animals take "2 sleeps." Considering these observations, she speculates that "maybe the brain can't keep you asleep for prolonged periods," and she wonders whether the archaic sleep pattern had some functional purpose. Like Ekirch, Carskadon believes that the change in sleep pattern "highlights something humanity might have lost in the hurly-burly times we live in today."
Much as we might envy the more relaxed sleep pattern of our forebears, we are unlikely to revert to it. As Carskadon points out, "It's hard to adapt to 2 bouts of sleep when you have to be at work at 8 am." She does feel, though, that it would benefit patients with interrupted sleep to tell them that such a sleep pattern may be natural.
The accountant troubled by broken sleep could well benefit from learning that the sleep pattern he finds so distressing may be more natural than the solid sleep he desires. And he should be told that in his nocturnal wakefulness he's far from alone. He's in the company not only of giraffes and chipmunks but also of his ancestors and many of his contemporaries. If the usual measures don't suffice to give him the solid sleep he wants, tell him to savor the period before he returns to sleep. It's a time to meditate, have sex, think about dreams. Or, as Wehr says, he can "just lie there and go back to sleep."