It turns out, though, that for well over a century we’ve been insulting our natural wake-sleep cycle by expecting to fall asleep precisely at 10 or 11 p.m., sleep solidly the entire night, and wake promptly at 6 or 7 a.m. There’s accumulating scientific and historical evidence that human beings, like many of our mammalian cousins, weren’t meant to follow what we consider a “normal” wake-sleep pattern of two strictly segregated blocks of time—16 uninterrupted hours awake, 8 uninterrupted hours asleep….
….This bimodal sleep pattern appears to have been the normal way human beings slept throughout preindustrial history, before the invention of electric light put an end to it. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, historian A. Roger Ekirch demonstrates, through a wealth of written evidence (diaries, philosophical treatises, religious tracts, plays, legal depositions, medical books, and the like), that before the 19th century, people in Western Europe frequently wrote of sleep intervals “as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration.” People might get up and do chores, smoke a pipe, engage in prayer or reading, converse, visit neighbors, make love, or simply lie there in contemplation and fantasy.
Midnight or early-morning insomnia is possibly more “natural” than the pattern of 8 hours of straight sleep we’ve come to expect, but often fail to achieve. Perhaps we ought to accept the reality of those hours awake and cultivate a better attitude toward the inevitable. According to some sleep researchers, lying quietly and peacefully awake can be as restful and restorative as sleep. And it’s undoubtedly true that expending much anxiety on insomnia just makes it worse.
My response to Val in comments (with a bit of editing) is here:
love that! it’s so good to reframe what this society likes to pathologize…the problem in waking in the night these days, I imagine is that people are over-scheduled and over-burdened so they don’t have time to take a nap or take it easy the next day! Or as the article points out we freak out making it impossible to simply relax in contemplation in the middle of the night.
Update: New article on same topic: Insomnia? Or is your body just asking to sleep like our ancestors did?