“Normal” Sleep

sleepOne of the justifiable criticisms of psychiatry is that it has a tendency to define a relatively narrow range of behavior as normal. We often tell the psychiatry residents to watch out for this tendency, and try to avoid it.

Certainly sleep medicine is at least as prone to this tendency as psychiatry, as we are reminded by a fascinating post that one of our readers forwarded to us.

Almost everyone knows that it is “normal” to sleep for a good solid 7 and a half to 8 and a half hours per night. And worrying about not sleeping a “normal” amount is both common and a significant cause of anxiety (and, ironically, insomnia).

Along comes a post that argues quite convincingly that this was not the historical norm. At least in Western Europe, it appears that the normal pattern used to be sleeping in two “shifts” separated by an hour or two of quiet activity in the middle of the night.

The article intrigued me because it fit with my experience when I was most relaxed, on a fabulous vacation in Italy a few years back. On that trip I found that I would routinely get up around 1 or 2 am and putter around for an hour or two, quietly reading or listening to music, and then go back to sleep. I thought it was odd, since it didn’t seem to fit with what I expected, but it seemed to work well, at least on that trip.

The author of the article makes the point that we don”t know whether this previously “normal” pattern is any better than the new normal pattern, but it is intriguing to read about this other way of sleeping.

If you want to know even more you might want to buy the book by Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. And if you follow the link to buy it we get a small amount of money to maintain this site (at no extra cost to you).