Anyone who watched the Seinfeld comedy in the 90s will remember the time that Seinfeld’s wacky neighbor, ‘Kramer’, decided he would function better on an alternative sleep schedule. As happens in sitcoms, it didn’t go very well. Chaos and hilarity ensued.
Just like a lot of Seinfeld’s humor, however, that storyline of alternative sleeping schedules is based on a real-life concept called Segmented Sleep. Other terms for this are Biphasic or Polyphasic sleep. And it’s not really a new idea. Many historians believe that human beings used to naturally sleep in distinct phases, separated by a period of wakefulness. Some of them living in tribal areas may still do so.
Although it’s the norm in modern life, today’s standard of sleeping for approximately eight hours straight may not work for everyone. As insomnia continues to be a pervasive and growing problem, many people are asking questions about whether or not it might be wise for us to get back to the way our ancestors slept—in two distinct segments.
What Is Segmented Sleep?
Segmented sleep is just what the name implies. It means that a person’s sleep is divided into chunks or segments of a few hours at a time. The time of wakefulness in between can be used for anything from reading and praying to doing chores or working. Many people who follow a split sleeping schedule find that the time in the middle of the night is well used for creativity, thinking or meditation.
Historically, the before the days of electricity, segmented sleep was clearly divided into two chunks. The first portion of sleep began in the early evening, around 7pm or 8pm, and lasted until around midnight. At midnight there would be a period of a few hours of wakefulness. This is where the French term ‘dorveille’ or ‘wakesleep’ comes from. Following this period of wakefulness would come another chunk of sleep until the sun rose. Many historical documents refer to “first sleep” and “second sleep”.
The exact development of how the two segments of sleep eventually became melded together into one is unclear, but it is likely related to the introduction of street lamps and indoor lights. Light bulbs made early evening activity more possible and the first early evening sleep was probably eliminated along the time it was possible to stay up later and be active. By the 1920s, this concept of first and second sleep had been completely removed from western culture.
Benefits of a Segmented Sleep Schedule
Some of the positive aspects of functioning within an alternative, segmented sleep schedule may include:
From a creative standpoint, some people who practice segmented sleep cycles may actually function better, depending on the way their brains work. This is because they may possibly have better access to the deep recesses of their brain. They may be more likely to remember their dreams and might be more creative in that state that comes between sleep and waking.
Time for Meditation and Personal Reflection.
Struggling to get time alone to meditate. Find it for an hour or two in the middle of the night. The health benefits of meditation are numerous, whether attached to a particular faith or simply used as personal, private time. Many people who promote segmented sleep schedules find that the quiet time in the middle of the night is perfect for meditation, private thoughts, reflection and prayer. Taking time for meditation and deep thought in the night may offer a ballast of peace and comfort throughout an otherwise hectic day.
If you aren’t trying to cram all of your brain function into the daytime hours, your ability to be creative and productive may take a boost that reduces your stress hormones. This is true as long as waking up in the night doesn’t cause you to panic about not getting enough sleep. In fact, if you use the time in the night to think and let your mind wander freely without anxiety, you may find that your stress is actually reduced during the day.
Is Segmented Sleep Healthy?
Some people who have taken to functioning within the boundaries of segmented sleep believe that their body clocks actually function better on this type of schedule. What some people call insomnia (lying awake in the middle of the night for an hour or two) might simply be an alternative sleeping cycle. It depends on how you look at it, really.
One study performed in 1992 has shown that the body, left to its own devices, may reset itself to a segmented sleep schedule. During this study, Thomas Wehr, a psychiatrist, kept a group of people into total darkness for 14 hours every day for an entire month.
Although it took a couple of weeks to regulate, by the fourth week the participants had all established a sleep routine that was distinctly segmented. At the beginning of darkness each day, the subjects slept for four hours, woke for an hour or two, and then slept again for another four hours. And their health was no worse for it. The segmented sleep seemed to develop naturally and may be an indication of the way our bodies might function better.
So while some people might maintain this type of sleeping pattern naturally, the adjustment doesn’t fit very well into our modern society. Especially since it would be almost impossible for a person to avoid artificial light. And in order for segmented sleep to work properly, a person would need to go to bed at 7pm or 8pm.
For people who have extremely flexible work schedules and a limited social life, they might be able to pull it off. But for others, lying awake in the middle of the night might cause them to just be sleep deprived and stressed out.
On the other hand, if you have a habit of waking up in the middle of the night and you thought this was negative, you may be relieved to know that there’s really nothing wrong with you! Your body may just be reverting back to what your ancestors took to be a normal activity. As long as you get enough sleep, it doesn’t matter if there’s a break in between the sleeping cycles.
So rather than causing you to panic, middle-of-the-night awakenings can be viewed as a natural part of the circadian rhythm and sleep cycles. If it happens to you, use that time to think, meditate, process, or be creative. You may find that what society has negatively labelled as “insomnia” is really just an opportunity for you to listen to your body.