Biphasic Sleep and “The Watch” Syndrome

Are You Working Overtime at Night?

First Sleep, Second Sleep, and “The Watch”


Do you wake up at night? Do you have to eat a snack, drink some milk, or read a book to return to sleep? According to the Cleveland Clinic, one in three adults worldwide have insomnia symptoms (30% in the U.S.)

The NHSinform (National Health Service of Scotland) lists the following as common causes of insomnia: stress, anxiety, poor sleep environment (uncomfortable bed, too much light, noise, too hot or cold, alcohol, caffeine, and change in work hours).

But, have you ever considered that the cause may be “The Watch?” A forgotten medieval habit of sleeping in two shifts, once in the evening and once in the morning (“first sleep” and “second sleep”), included a period of wakefulness and activity in between – “the watch.” This unusual phenomenon of double sleeping, or “biphasic sleep” was common in England and Europe (and other societies around the globe) during the Middle Ages and until the industrial revolution.

The watch followed a period of sleep of usually about two hours, and lasted typically from 11:00 pm to 1:00 am. “This period of wakefulness was a surprisingly useful window in which to get things done. People did just about anything and everything after they awakened from their first sleep… from tending to ordinary tasks, such as adding wood to the fire, taking remedies, or going to urinate (often into the fire itself).

“For peasants, waking up meant getting back down to more serious work – whether this involved venturing out to check on farm animals or carrying out household chores.

“The watch was also a time for religion,” with specific prayers for exact time periods.

“But most of all, the watch was useful for socializing – and for sex.”

And, not unexpectedly, “criminals took the opportunity to skulk around and make trouble.”

So, is there any evidence that this is a normal circadian pattern?

In the early 1990s, a study by Thomas Wehr experimented with shortening men’s hours of light exposure to only ten hours per day, with fourteen hours confined to a dark room. After four weeks, the men were sleeping in a divided pattern of two halves with one to three hours in between of wakefulness. Wehr had reinvented biphasic sleep.

Another study, in 2015, involved volunteers from a remote area in Madagascar that had no electricity and no lights at night. The volunteers wore an “actimeter” that could track sleep cycles for ten days. The researchers found that subjects with no artificial light had a period of activity from about midnight until 1:00 or 1:30, then would fall back to sleep until 6:00 a.m. and sunrise.

Why has this pattern of biphasic sleep disappeared?

Actually, it still exists in small areas of the world, but the evidence seems to point to the Industrial Revolution, with artificial lighting as the cause for the end of biphasic sleep.

But, do some of us maintain a hidden need for a natural sleep pattern? Is it possible that our modern lifestyle and pattern of sleep is not what our bodies and brain really crave?

Do you have insomnia? Does it occur at a specific time? How long does it usually last?

What do you do to get back to sleep?

Do you make use of this time for writing or reading?

Have you found a book you would like to nominate for most likely to make you sleepy?

How Things Have Changed

A new Stephen King book hit the bookstores this week. It’s titled JOYLAND, and it’s much more like THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON than THE STAND or MISERY or DESPERATION or the Tower series or any of a couple dozen books that I could name. It’s published under the wonderful, indispensable, and at this point venerable Hard Case Crime imprint. The book’s appearance made some major news in those places where books are still news because if you want to buy the book, you’re going to have to buy The Book. There will not be an e-book version of JOYLAND for the foreseeable  future; yes, you’ll be able to obtain an audiobook, but something for your Kindle or Nook or other e-reader isn’t going to happen for awhile, unless you want to buy a copy of the book, tear out each page, paste it on Your Precious and…of course, you are not going to do that. 
There is a bit of irony here, given that one of the first e-books by a mainstream writer to be published solely as an ebook  — not as we know them now, but it was an ebook nonetheless — was a novella entitled “Riding the Bullet,” a chilling little ten-finger exercise that was written by, uh, Stephen King. You had to download some (free) software called “SoftLock” in order to read it. This occurred way back in 2000. There were other ebooks published, including a pay-as-you-go serial by King titled “The Plant,” but the format never really caught on until some smart folks at Amazon came up with what they came up with. King, however, was there at the beginning. There accordingly have been some who have now taken King to task over what they perceive to be his apparent one-eighty, somehow finding him to blame for the popularity of the electronic format since he was one of the first to embrace it with the same fervor that Jack Torrance embraced that rotting corpse in THE SHINING. I would disagree. King has made quite clear that his reason for limiting the format of JOYLAND to physical form isn’t to disown the child he midwifed at the turn of the century; he is doing it to help physical booksellers. This is not something new for King; those of us of some age will recall that King did an unapologetic tour of indy stores in 1994 to promote INSOMNIA, riding his motorcycle from city to city and making appearances to yes, mobs of people. There’s also a more recent model for this. A growing number of musicians are occasionally releasing some new songs only on vinyl, to support independent record stores.  Is he taking a risk financially, by limiting the format to physical books, and cutting out the impulse buyer? Possibly. Is Hard Case Crime? Almost certainly. JOYLAND won’t be available at the press of a button; it’s going to take some effort, and yes, some waiting to get it, maybe even some inconvenience. Some folks may feel it’s not worth the hassle.
But can I tell you something, as someone who loves his Kindle? JOYLAND is worth whatever it takes for you to get it. Let me go further than that: this is a book that should only see the light of day as an actual book. It’s a coming of age novel, with some mystery and romance and a bit of the supernatural thrown in, and it works as a physical book. JOYLAND is set in 1973, at a downheel amusement park on the coast of North Carolina, and I swear that as I turned the pages I could smell — very faintly — popcorn and taffy and ocean water and hear ferris wheel music rising up from between the pages. Am I given to imagining things? Maybe. But isn’t that what reading is all about? I don’t think it would be quite the same on an e-reader.
Let me now ask you: what was the last physical book (and we’ll count audio books in the mix) that you purchased? How long ago was it? And what do you think of what King and Hard Case Crime are doing with JOYLAND? Do you think that limiting its format to a physical product is a good idea or a huge mistake?