The Night Is Not Just For sleeping

All happy sleepers are alike; every unhappy sleeper is unhappy in his own way.

This is the view of the medical profession, which currently defines almost 90 different sleep-related disorders:

There are insomnias, parasomnias and hypersomnias, nocturnal teeth grinding, restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, sonambulistic wanderings and the spooky REM sleep disorders, in which the person affected acts out the contents of his or her dreams, even if they are not sweet at all.

It’s different with the happy sleeper: according to a representative survey, in Germany, the adult person goes to bed in a dark and quiet room at an average of 23:04, loses consciousness a quarter of an hour later and wakes up again after seven hours and 14 minutes.

He lies alone in bed from earliest childhood on; after successful partner search then always in twos, until a judge or an even deeper sleep separates them.

This or something similar, perhaps with 30 to 40 minutes more bedtime, should be the sleeping career of the Central European according to guidebooks.

If not, there may be a need for therapy. Perhaps a new mattress will suffice – the sleep industry and its products are ready. Is this really the only way?

“Oh no,” says the science historian Philip Osten from the University of Heidelberg, who is researching the history of sleep, among other things. “Sleep is not only endocrinology, but always also a cultural product – you can distinguish whole societies according to how they sleep.”

Thus, the concept of ideal sleep, which is widespread in Germany today – eight hours in a block, sleep beginning before midnight – is a product of industrial culture between 1860 and 1900, probably influenced by the dietary ideas of the Royal Prussian personal physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836):

The workers should be able to follow the rhythm of the factories rested and without having to take a nap in between. For a long time, however, things looked different in the apartments than they do today: only a hundred years ago, for example, more than a million people in Berlin slept in at least four rooms, Osten reports.

Even more sceptical about the Western, monophasic standard model are authors who move further away in time or culture: The historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech University, for example, in his monograph on the subject (“In the Hour of Night”), suspects that prehistoric man may have only gradually learned to sleep through the “dangerous darkness”.

What is certain, however, is that until the end of the early modern era most people in Western Europe slept in two longer periods of time during most nights, which were usually interrupted by a waking phase of at least one hour, usually sometime after midnight – “to smoke, to see what time it was or to tend the fire”.

What today is diagnosed as a disgraceful sleep disorder would therefore often be nothing more than a return of this old pattern. “The seamless sleep we are striving for today is actually something unnatural, an invention of the modern world,” Ekirch assures.

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