The Two Sleeps Theory

When I was out jogging around my Airbnb in the south of Spain a day or two ago, or maybe when I was attempting a careful post-run stretch thanks to Peloton’s app, I managed to pull a muscle. At least, something jangled out of position in my upper right back and decided to be uncooperative and painful.

Yesterday, I drove from my Costa nest up to Ronda, high in the Sierra Nevada, staying in a chain with which I was – until now – unfamiliar – the Catalonia group. The room was cool on arrival, darkened in the Spanish style by closed curtains. When cast apart, they revealed an Evita-style balcony at the confluence of two streets across the Ronda gorge; it was busy and noisy for almost any time I was awake, but not unpleasantly so.

I took my back for a gentle stretching walk around the streets, catching this town in the act of its ‘paseo’, or its gentle evening stroll. For some, it was time to settle at a street cafe and enjoy a little wine or coffee and watch those strolling past. Once I had enjoyed the walk, I stopped into a friendly tapas bar for some really amazing tapas and a glass of the local red.

Despite my walking and stretching, I slept badly. Each time I turned on my right side, I awoke. The street was busy at 11pm, 1am, 3am with people enjoying the craic. As dawn carved its stately arc across the mountain tops, and the doors of the breakfast hall were cast open, I was up, planning on a siesta to fill in for the disturbed night. And here I am, at siesta time, writing.

But it got me thinking of something I read years ago about the “Two Sleeps Theory”. Have you come across it before? There are numerous articles – some academic, some a little more accessible, that dive into the theory of how we humans ‘used’ to sleep in two night-time segments (I suppose Spain may have been a 3-sleep culture, allowing for the siesta!)

In the days before industrialisation in Western cultures, it appears that we had two sleeps per night. And for some in the Global South, two night-time sleeps remains the norm. Typically, the first sleep would last for about 4 hours and start an hour or two after sun down, and would be followed by a period of activity. The second sleep would be a further 3-4 hours.

The interlude between sleeps might have been a time to catch up on correspondence or reading, or having a chat (or other forms of intercourse) with your ‘bedfellow’. People might have had a snack or used the bathroom.

The evidence is there, according to a detailed paper written by Roger Ekirch, for a long two-sleeps tradition from ancient times to the modern day. For those of us in the West, the culture-memory of this great tradition has long since faded. Yet there are traces of it if you look closely enough, in archives, mentions in poetry, in paintings and court records. It would have been the way that things were, the common-sense way to sleep.

I wonder why it was ditched? As ever, the answer may depend on your perspective. I’d put it down to capitalism, of course… the focus on work (and going ‘out’ to work) meant that the week was split up into work time and leisure time and – I suspect – people spent rather less time on rest and inter-resting activities like the night-time interlude. But have no doubt – the ‘tradition’ of the 8-hour sleep and feeling that we’ve failed to have a ‘good sleep’ if we don’t get 7 or 8 hours is not what we were built to do, not if the old 2-sleep norm had persisted. I like the idea of a night-time snack, I must confess. Perhaps the task of getting up in the night (at least for men over 40) is a bodily hangover from 2-Sleeps-History?

Well, these are the things that tickle your brain when you’ve not slept very much at all. Perhaps if I’m quick (and don’t mind the bustle of the street), I could still fit in a 30 minute nap before a pre-prandial tipple?

Hope you’re well where you are,

Patrick xo