If you find yourself in a woozy state of heavy-eyed stupor sometime after you finish your lunch and before your dreaded 2:30 conference call, take a look around. Chances are you’re fighting off the same urge to nap as your colleagues and cube-mates. It turns out the mid-afternoon slump and urge to nap is more a reflection of biology than binge watching The Americans. Thanks to circadian rhythms, wanting to nap mid-day is part of being human.
And, we sleepy humans are in good sleepy company – biologists tell us that most mammalian species are polyphasic sleepers, meaning they alternate between naps and deep sleep in cycles throughout the day. A study conducted in 1992 by psychiatrist and sleep specialist Thomas Wehr found that during winter-like periods of short daylight or when removed from sources of artificial light, people will fall naturally into two distinct four-hour cycles of sleep separated by a brief period of wakefulness.
Fittingly, evidence exists that a bifurcated sleeping pattern was actually the historical norm for most of human history, and in common practice in divergent cultures all over the world. Historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a 2001 paper citing references to this “first sleep” and “second sleep” pattern in more than 500 documents spanning three millennia, from Homer’s Odyssey and the powdered courts of 16th century France, to contemporary tribes in Nigeria.
Industrialization, gas and electric light, and the advent of an unbroken wage day – ah, the wonders of modern society – changed all of that. By the 19th century, physicians were advising mothers to instill a single eight-hour rest period in their children, setting up social expectations for a “good night’s sleep.”
In short, if you’re getting very, very sleepy, it’s not just you.
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