Waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to return to sleep is one sign of insomnia. But a recent story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” suggests that this wasn’t always the case.
A period of wakefulness in the middle of the night used to be the norm. At that time there were no lights to turn on at night. When it got dark outside, it was just as dark inside.
A winter night can bring 14 hours of solid darkness. That’s a long time to spend in bed.
So what would happen? There are reports that people would sleep in two shifts through the night. In between, they would lie awake for a period of time.
But this wasn’t a frustrating, anxious, tossing and turning kind of awake. It was more of a relaxing, late-night pause before the early-morning sleep shift.
The story even cites a 1993 study that simulated this long, dark winter night. Fifteen volunteers spent 14 hours in bed in a sleep lab. The lights were turned out from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Sure enough, they slept in two shifts. In the middle was a period of wakefulness lasting a few hours.
"You might think that lying awake for two hours would be a kind of torture," study author Thomas Wehr told NPR. "But it wasn't at all."
This news might be a comfort for older adults who tend to have more fragmented sleep. They may have a more flexible schedule that allows them to spend a long winter’s night in bed.
But 14 hours in bed? That’s close to impossible for most people today.
Yet you can implement a less extreme version of the two-shift sleep method. One proponent of the split-night sleep schedule is Dan Henning, who is 67 years old. He is the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins.
The Palm Beach Post reports that he goes to bed by 9 p.m. Around 2 a.m. he likes to wake up for about 45 minutes of “personal time.” Then he returns to sleep.
So in a perfect world, what would be your sleep schedule?