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A Good Night’s Sleep

28 May A Good Night’s Sleep

The holidays are always a lovely way to catch up on some much needed sleep and rest after a busy few weeks of lesson preparation, teaching, marking, reading and research, not to mention all the meetings taking place with staff and students. The research is overwhelming that the vast majority of us require seven to eight hours of sleep to feel fully rested. Our ‘circadian rhythm’ is a natural, internal system designed to regulate feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness over a 24-hour period. According to the National Sleep Foundation, ˜Most people feel the strongest desire to sleep between 1:00pm and 3:00pm and then again between 2:00am and 4:00am, but this can vary from person to person.”

However, the focus on sleep is not a modern obsession, sleep science can in fact be traced back to the Renaissance period when theories began to develop about the body’s sensitivity to light and darkness. By the 17th century rest was regarded as one of the key ingredients of a healthy life. Most writers believed that seven to nine hours sleep was required to lead a productive life. Katherine Craik, a reader in English Literature at Oxford Brookes University, comments in her article, The Importance of a Good Night’s Sleep, ˜We tend to think of the early modern world as shrouded in darkness, but sleep scientists were in fact already surprisingly concerned with what we now call light pollution. Moonlight was a problem in the absence of effective curtains, as it could mimic the stirring effects of bright sunshine. Staying up late by candlelight, as students often did with untimely watchings at their studies,was particularly hazardous. Deprived of the refreshing properties of darkness, the student’s energies were instead pulled constantly outwards to sustain movement and active thought. Clearly the same problems were evident for students in the early modern period as they are for our current pupils revising for examinations in the 21st Century.

However, Craik highlights one very interesting feature which she refers to as segmented sleep. ˜The forgotten practice of ˜segmented sleep’ memorably described by the historian Roger Ekirch in At Day’s Close: A History of Night-time (2005), meant that people generally slept at night in two equal intervals, spending up to two hours awake between their first and second slumber. In the long, dark winter months, when the labouring classes may have spent as many as 14 hours in bed, broken sleep was regarded as routine and natural and only disappeared in Europe with the advent of artificial lighting. The first sleep, regarded as the most indispensable and restorative, was followed by a period of ˜watching’, a state of quiet, dark and often prayerful meditation, before the second sleep led towards dawn. In the middle of the night people made love, stoked the fire or even caught up on household chores. This period of mindful night-time wakefulness was quite different from the hazardous practice of extending the evening by working into the small hours. Perhaps because it took place largely in the dark, it was associated instead with rest, recuperation and reflection.

Some interesting ideas certainly to consider and reflect upon in our own half term break! And of course don’t forget to read Rhea and Raushan’s Blog post on Teenage Sleep Patterns .

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