Should we resurrect the Medieval practice of two sleeps?

7 mins
27 May 2022
Should we resurrect the Medieval practice of two sleeps?

Is biphasic sleeping for hot wenches only? We explore the optimum ways to stay energised and productive in modern society, with help from the past

words Patrick Heardman

You’re a traveller, you’ve been on the road for many hours. You’re tired and you just want to lay down and get some sleep. You pull into a hotel and ask to stay, but the concierge doesn’t take you to your own room, instead he shows you a spot on a large communal bed next to five other travellers. This would have been the experience for a lot of people in the middle ages, and they would not have been in the least bit surprised or perturbed, it would have been quite normal.

The extent of privacy we’re used to today took a long time to emerge and become the norm. For large stretches of human history, people lived very communally, even in sleep. It is thought that early human tribes would have slept in groups as a way to keep warm and to keep predators away. These habits lasted well into the middle ages, entire families sleeping in one room cottages for example, Kings sleeping in the great halls of castles surrounded by their knights and servants.

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But this isn’t the only sleep custom we have gradually drifted away from in the modern world, according to historian Roger Ekirch. His comprehensive study of centuries worth of Western literature revealed repeated references to “first” and “second” sleeps, leading him to draw the conclusion that the industrial revolution, among other things, drove modern European society into unnatural monophasic sleep: that is sleeping in one continuous chunk each night.

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In his research, Ekirch found references to biphasic sleep, as he later named it, not only across famous literary texts such as Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales, but also in hundreds of diaries, letters, medical textbooks, and newspaper articles. He found that in the twilight hours in between sleeps, people would sit by the fire and smoke their pipes, go for nightwalks, tend to their cattle, or even have dinner.

Ekirch began thinking that this pattern of sleep was not developed in mediaeval times, but that it was actually the natural way humans had slept for millenia, that had been disrupted only by the invention of artificial illumination, an increased dependence on clock time, and a societal capitalist shaming of those who oversleep.

Today, biphasic sleepers exist on the peripherals of the much more dominant monophasic sleeping pattern, but they do exist and some people swear by its effectiveness.

“I started sleeping dual core schedules last year,” says Reddit user Poison_Nectar, who is also moderator of the r/polyphasic subreddit, a 12,000-member community discussion board centred around experimental sleeping practices that are separated into numerous smaller blocks as opposed to a continuous one.

“I enjoyed having two cores (especially the coregap) so much that every schedule I’ve done since has been dual core,” Poison_Nectar added. “I have my sleeps from 23:00pm to 2:00am, and 3:30am to 7:30am, which works out well with my night obligations like band practice which lasts until 22ish usually, and any early stuff like work at 8:00am”

But what about the gap in between sleeps? For Poison_Nectar this is time for: “doing chores around the house, food prep, general prep for the upcoming day, self care, gaming, taking walks, and working on personal projects.”

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Lurking slightly deeper in the polyphasic side of the internet is the invite-only Polyphasic Sleeping Discord server, where people who want to experiment with multi-block sleeping patterns can interact in a more immediate and intimate way. Here users share advice on ways to break the monophasic cycle, tips on how to be more consistent with schedules, and links to “sleep tech” that might help them achieve their optimum pattern.

“The most stable schedules, without a doubt, were biphasic schedules,” 19-year-old Discord user Sekvanto says, who has dabbled in an array of sleep cycles. “I tried out all of them… biphasic was quite unusual, but in fact my brain adapted to it quite well. I used an alarm at first, but after a couple of weeks I removed it, and followed it naturally for several months.”

“It was really interesting to have lucid dreams sometimes. The experience was quite surreal”

For Sekvanto, their second sleep “always” started with SOREM (sleep onset rapid eye movement), which are periods of REM that occur within 15 minutes of falling asleep. “It was really interesting to have lucid dreams sometimes. The experience was quite surreal.” In the two hours or so between sleeps Sekvanto could be found customising their Linux computer, talking in Discord and playing games, or watching the stars and listening to psy-trance music.

Fellow Discord member Flor started experimenting with biphasic sleeping back in November 2021, to see if it was possible to reduce sleep while maintaining performance. Having had trouble nodding off in the past he wanted to see if there was a better rhythm out there for him. “I’ve had some issues with sleep onset before, but following a strict schedule has fixed most of my sleeping habits,” she says.

“Starting with biphasic sleeping is straightforward, but scheduling naps into the day is crucial before reducing sleep. At the beginning, naps won't always work and dreams can become very vivid. But after a while, one's body eventually adapts.”

Flor, who mostly uses the golden time between his slumbers to catch up on important tasks, meditate, or talk to friends and family in a different time zone, advises that people should make sure to choose a schedule “that can fit their current lifestyle” and for “several months at minimum,” to allow for a smooth transition and a meaningful impact. Aside from having to give up coffee (couldn’t be me) and following a pretty strict sleep schedule, Flor attests he has experienced “no downsides” and actually reports “improved performance”.

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But is there any scientific basis to back up the implementation of polyphasic sleeping patterns? Is there really any need to give up coffee, set alarms for 2am several months on the bounce, and fill in complex sleep charts to monitor your patterns? It all sounds quite traumatic.

“Yes,” is the simple answer from Dr David Lee, a biopsychologist with a special interest in the psycho behavioural assessment and treatment of insomnia. “But the science is emerging and there’s quite a bit of debate about it.”

“Short naps have been shown to increase alertness, improve cognitive ability (memory, concentration, attention, visuospatial awareness and emotion regulation). But there is an argument to say that if we’re getting enough good quality sleep at night then we shouldn’t need to nap in the daytime.”

“We have evolved to sleep twice in the 24 hour period. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, where we evolved out of Africa, an equatorial region where it is just too hot in the middle of the day to do anything useful”

Dr Lee does say, however, that there is an evolutionary basis for the biphasic method. “We have a dip in our circadian rhythms of alertness in the late evening and in the early afternoon, and these dips are conducive for sleep,” he says. “Hence we have evolved to sleep twice in the 24 hour period. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, where we evolved out of Africa, an equatorial region where it is just too hot in the middle of the day to do anything useful, so it made sense for us to sleep through the heat of the day, and through the darkness of night (where, again we’re not much use as we rely on our eyesight so much) – pre electric lights we really couldn’t do much in the night time, and so made sense to sleep through this time.”

He added: “most of us don’t need to nap as our sleep at night is of good quality, but also it's very difficult in the modern era to approach your boss and ask for an hour off each afternoon to sleep!”

Having experimented for several months, Sekvanto eventually came back round to mono sleep. “Currently, I’ve quit polyphasic/biphasic sleep and returned to mono,” they say. “I go to sleep at 8-9pm and wake up at 1-2am, which feels very nice. It’s my favourite sleep schedule. I'm that type of person who is inclined to hyper-focus. To be productive, it's much more efficient to work without interruptions, such as naps. I love being up at night, but it's also possible on mono if i sleep early!”

“I will say that Biphasic sleep is great for those who have the right personality,” they add, “and it's very simple and natural. So I hope some people will be happy to implement this sleep pattern in their lives.”

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