Forum — From the August 2013 issue

Segmented Sleep

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Following the publication of my research, first in the form of an academic article and then as a chapter in my book, the subject of sleep progressively intruded on my waking hours. What I had initially thought tangential to a study of nocturnal culture became instead a source of widespread interest. Newspaper reviews and radio appearances invariably became discussions of first and second sleep. I was invited to speak to medical gatherings (something I had not done since supervising a group of premeds years ago as they took the MCAT).

I also received emails from patients suffering from “middle of the night” insomnia. Most expressed relief when they learned that their wakefulness was not necessarily abnormal — indeed, viewed from the cosmic perch of history, their slumber appeared quite natural. In the view of David Neubauer, a specialist in sleep medicine at Johns Hopkins, consolidated sleep, as an artificial invention of modern life, may be inherently unstable. It also stands to reason that completing the transition from biphasic sleep, preeminent in all likelihood since time immemorial, would take longer than one or even two centuries.

A growing number of doctors who treat insomniacs believe that knowledge of segmented sleep can help patients fall back asleep by easing their anxiety. In replying to emails, more than once I felt obligated to point out — and to remind myself — that I was a historian, not a physician. Even so, I set about acquiring a better understanding of sleep and its discontents, both dyssomnias — encompassing insomnia and hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness during the day) — and parasomnias (abnormal behavior during sleep, from teeth grinding to sleepwalking).

As my immersion in sleep medicine deepened, I grew more cognizant of my own slumber, which began to take a turn for the worse. An odd tingling in my lower legs, which I had never much noticed, hindered my ability to sleep. When I mentioned this to my doctor, he responded, “Restless-legs syndrome,” a disorder typically characterized by an uncomfortable sensation of uncertain origin resulting in the need to move one’s legs. Several months passed, and I started to nod off occasionally in the midafternoon for an hour or more. The diagnosis: inadequate rest resulting from sleep apnea, wherein breathing becomes shallow or broken and the quality of nighttime sleep becomes poor. Neither of mine was a peculiar ailment, particularly for a middle-aged man who could stand to lose weight.

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is the author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (W. W. Norton). A former Guggenheim fellow, he is a professor of history at Virginia Tech.

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