5 mins

Terrible Bedfellows: A Brief History of What’s Keeping You From Sleep

It isn't just caffeine and racing thoughts keeping you up at night. Here are three stealthy sleep robbers you need to know about.
by Tom Anderson | Jul 1 2016

How did you sleep last night? For an overwhelming percentage of modern humans, the answer is “not that well.” Study after study has shown that people are not getting enough shuteye, and when we do manage to rest, it’s not effective. Take one report from the US Government, which found that 30 percent of employees get less than six hours of sleep a night, while nearly 70 percent describe their sleep as “insufficient.” Why is this the case? Sleep has been shown to be incredibly important to our health, our sex-drives, and our productivity. So, why do we sleep so badly” answers can be found buried deep in our history. Many of the customs and practices that plague our peaceful slumber can be blamed fairly and squarely on our forbears.

So, let’s look into the shady past of a few of these enemies of sleep and discover why they affect our lives today, beginning with the device that has ruined many a peaceful morning:

Enemy 1: The Alarm Clock

When it’s time to get up on time, most of us need a little bit of help. And for most of us, that help comes in the form of an alarm setting on our smartphones. But the history of the alarm clock goes way back, before the discovery of electricity, before even the invention of clockwork! One of the first alarm clocks recorded in history is said to have belonged to the philosopher Plato. Greg Jenner describes it in A Million Years in a Day.

This legend of an alarm clock, if indeed it ever existed, used water, air, and the power of gravity. Water passed through a series of vessels at a steady, timed rate. At the right moment, the water would reach a special vessel where it would produce a series of whistles, informing the lazy sage that it was time to rise and philosophize.

Interestingly, although the alarm clock helped Plato turn up for his lessons, nowadays, an early wake-up call has a largely negative impact on learning. One 1998 study by Brown University discovered that when students moved to high school and had to start their lessons at 7:20 (rather than at 8:25 in middle school) their grades and attention suffered.

Enemy 2: Artificial Light

When it comes to our troubled sleep, Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan have a lot to answer for. Their crime? The invention of the light bulb. Nothing has had as great an impact on rest as artificial light.

Nowadays, most of us get our sleep in one large (ideally 7-9-hour) chunk. This sleep marathon is known as monophasic sleep, and it is a fairly recent development in nighttime activity. Before, the invention of artificial light in the 19th century, people would go to bed much earlier—just when it got dark. Then, around midnight, they’d awake for a spot of praying, reading, or maybe a little how’s your father. After an hour or so they’d retire again for a second sleep which they’d end early in the morning when day broke. This broken snooze is known as bimodal sleep.

Odd as it may sound, this approach might actually be closest to our natural sleep pattern. A 1992 study by Thomas Wehr placed subjects in simulated pre-industrial lighting conditions for a month. Not long into the experiment, the subjects began to follow a two-sleep pattern, waking up around midnight just as our forebears, experiencing a pleasurable interlude of about an hour before going back to bed.

Perhaps it’s the lightbulb and its ability to make us stay up longer that’s moved us away from our ideal sleeping patterns. Damn you Edison!

Enemy 3: Sleeping Together

Anyone who has spent the night lying awake as their partner snored for a solid eight hours has surely wondered “Why do people sleep in the same room, let alone the same bed?!” Yet and still, night after night you climb into bed with your beloved—but why? Why is sleeping together (in the non-Biblical sense) such an expected social practice to begin with” together can be traced back in history to a time when the average family had little in terms of wealth or possessions. Whole families would have to live in tiny homes often only containing one single room. Therefore, when it came to bedtime, the whole family (kids and all) would bunk down together in a single bed if the family could afford one, or on the same pile of straw.

According to Kat Duff in The Secret Life of Sleep, the practice of children sleeping in the same bed (known as co-sleeping) began to die out in the West during the 19th century. But the practice of couples sharing bedspace remained. Although it might not always lead to the best sleep, it has its benefits: in fact, according to one study by the University of Hertfordshire, 94 percent of couples who sleep with their bodies touching each other are happy with their relationships. For couples who sleep apart, the figure is 68 percent.

Next time you lie awake tossing and turning or wake up groggy and tired, don’t self-incriminate. Go ahead and blame your bad night’s rest on your ancestors—or Edison and Plato!

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