Historian's research illuminates today's sleep

A Virginia Tech historian’s discovery about sleep in modern times has captured the attention of the medical community. Following 20 years of research on nocturnal life before modern lighting, A. Roger Ekirch has resurrected what for ages had been a commonplace of everyday existence. Now “segmented sleep” has become part of the lexicon of 21st century medicine.

“The way we sleep today is a remarkably recent phenomenon, the consequence of modern technology — bathing ourselves in electric light, which reconfigures the human body clock — coupled with cultural priorities that regard sleep as a necessary evil,” said Ekirch, a history professor whose research has revealed that people before the Industrial Revolution slept very differently.

“The nighttime slumber to which we aspire, not always successfully, is consolidated.” Ekirch said. “Whereas the dominant form of sleep from time immemorial consisted of a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep.’ ” The two intervals were bridged by an hour or more of wakefulness shortly past midnight, during which people did “anything and everything imaginable,” from reciting prayers to pilfering a neighbor’s firewood, he said.

   

Roger Ekirch Roger Ekirch, professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, received the university's 2009 Alumni Award for Excellence in Research.

Meticulously combing diaries, medical texts, and court records for his award-winning book “At Day’s Close,” Ekirch found more than 500 references in a variety of languages to this bimodal sleep pattern.

Ekirch’s research is bolstered by modern science. At the National Institute of Mental Health, subjects deprived of artificial light for up to 14 hours a day experienced the same pattern of sleep depicted in historical sources.

A growing number of sleep specialists have embraced Ekirch’s findings, seeing a likely link between certain varieties of insomnia and segmented sleep. For those insomniacs who awaken in the dead of night, simply knowing of this older, more natural sleep pattern helps reduce anxiety and eases their ability to fall back to sleep.

“Many people wake up at night and panic. I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern,” said Professor Russell Foster, chair of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University.

All of which begs the question: Are we tending to medicate a condition — awakening in the middle of the night — that is actually a natural phenomenon?

Ekirch, who cites research that nearly a third of today’s ailments stem, either directly or indirectly, from the quality of sleep, has given keynote addresses to medical conferences and co-authored with the director of Europe’s largest sleep center two articles in a medical journal.

   

Roger Ekirch's book “At Day’s Close” Roger Ekirch's book “At Day’s Close” has been translated into half-dozen language.

In researching his book, Ekirch said he dreaded having to address the subject of sleep. “I feared that my findings would prove both conventional and boring.”

As it turns out, people are interested in a topic that impacts up to a third of our lives. The list of references to his research in the United States and abroad includes scholarly articles to magazines, newspapers, and, increasingly, medical publications. If you google “segmented sleep,” thousands of hits bubble up with Ekirch’s work attributed. As of January 2013, his book had been translated into six languages.

In an issue of Scientific American Mind, Dr. Walter Brown, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University’s School of Medicine, said, “The source of this new assault on conventional thinking comes not from a drug company or a university research program but from a historian.” The chief of oncology at Stanford University’s medical school recently pondered in Oncology Times the possible relevance of Ekirch’s “wonderful book” to treating cancer.

In 2012, an article in the BBC News Magazine profiling his findings, entitled “The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep,” received a record 1.5 million hits during its first day online. Ekirch also appears as a commentator in the PBS award-winning documentary, “The City Dark.” (He opens the trailer.) And he has given no shortage of interviews in recent years on National Public Radio and BBC programs.

The author of four books, Ekirch enjoys writing about men and women “who lived on the margins.” What disrupts his own slumber is the completion of a fifth book, which probes the far-reaching impact of the most violent mutiny in the history of Britain’s Royal Navy. Ekirch, who received his fourth fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the project, said the mutiny led to America’s adoption of political asylum and even turned the momentous election of 1800.

A graduate of Dartmouth who obtained his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, Ekirch was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998 and an Alumni Award for Research Excellence in 2009.

He teaches courses in early American history in addition to supervising the research of graduate students, including a doctoral dissertation at the University of Lisbon.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Jean Elliott at 540-231-5915.

Multimedia: Roger Ekirch

Take an audio journey with Roger Ekirch as he discusses the adventure of researching the history of night and where it led him.

Ekirch shares his thoughts

History Professor Roger Ekirch contributes online opinion pieces to The New York Times. Among them are the following:

Related reading

Publications around the world have made references to History Professor Roger Ekirch’s work, including Spain’s La Vanguardia, Brazil’s Vox Objetiva, the London Times, and Slate Magazine in the United States. The following is a sampling of news coverage from 2012:

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