I read this–“Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You”–last week and something completely clicked, and I’ve been thinking about it since then. Go read it–it’s short–and then come back. (If you don’t want to click to go read it, the summary is that way back before electric lights, humans used to go to bed when it got dark, sleep for four hours, wake up and hang out for an hour or two, then go back to sleep for another four hours. That was normal.)
Think about that. Sleep for four hours. Up for a bit. Then sleep for another four hours.
What if waking up every night at 3 am (and I know you know what I mean) wasn’t insomnia or a sleep problem, but just the way our bodies are programmed?
Think about that. What if we’ve been beating ourselves up about waking up in the middle of the night, and thinking it’s about aging or stress or whatever, when in reality it’s just that our bodies are not adapted to the way we’ve changed our schedules?
I decided to play around with it for the last few days. So I started going to sleep the first time I thought “I should go to sleep” instead of the fourth or fifth. Then, when I’d wake up at 3 or 4, instead of immediately trying to figure out what I was worried about, I’d just lie there and think, “Oh, I woke up. My first chunk of sleep is over.” And sometimes I’d figure out how long I’d slept (4-5 hours), and then I’d think about turning on the light and reading a book, and sometimes I’d pray a little, or think about whatever I’m writing, or current events. I let myself see it as extra time. I never managed to actually turn the lights on or get out of bed before falling back asleep. I’d wake up again 3 to 4 hours later.
The only change is that I stopped seeing myself as someone with insomnia. I don’t know if it’s that, or something about being more relaxed during the time I was awake in the middle of the night (I didn’t pay attention but I’d say it was 10-45 minutes each night), but I’m feeling more rested and less stressed during the day.
Conclusions I’m reaching from this:
1. If you wake up in the middle of the night every night, it doesn’t mean you have a problem. Experiment with treating it as something that happens because of the way our bodies are wired, and see if that changes how you feel about 3 am and about yourself.
2. If you do like to sleep in one long 8-hour stretch, know that you need to use modern technology to help that, by starting your sleep later than sundown and using cues like electric lights, etc. And if it doesn’t work and you do wake up in the middle of the night, that’s not an abnormality, that’s just that your body hasn’t adapted to one long stretch yet, and you can either keep trying to make it adapt or switch to another schedule. Evolution is fantastic, and if we keep going eventually in another few hundred years humans will all be programmed to sleep for 8 hours. We’re just not there yet, so do what you want to with that info.
3. Babies. Maybe the holy grail of “sleeping through the night” for 8 hours is, in actuality, completely unrealistic. Maybe we should be shooting for three four-hour chunks instead, as long as it’s ok for adults to do two four-hour chunks, too. I have to think a lot more about the ramifications of this for baby sleep, but knowing that 8 hours isn’t the way our bodies were always programmed lets in a lot of space, doesn’t it?
4. My brother is a super-genius. He’s been waking up in the middle of the night his entire life. But he wakes up, doesn’t stress about it, and then falls back asleep. Every night. He’s 37. I knew he was smart, but he somehow knew this was a feature, not a bug, even as a kid. Younger kids, man…
So, who’s going to try tracking it to see what happens if you just let yourself wake up in the middle of the night, observe but don’t judge, and then sleep another stretch? Thoughts?