From wakefulness to insomnia

For a long time, humanity divided its nights into two stages; It was only with the industrial revolution, and the need to save working time, that the norm of continuous sleep became established – the waking phase becoming pathological insomnia.

That sleep is a natural fact is difficult to dispute: it is a biological mechanism essential to all animal life and the objective knowledge we have of it depends essentially on the work of doctors and neurologists. This gives good reason to think that our way of sleeping is identical to that of any other member of humanity, whatever the time and place in which we place it. However, in 2001, the historian Roger Ekirch published a surprising article calling this proposition into question. Entitled “In Search of Lost Sleep.” Sleeping in the pre-industrial era in the British Isles (and in the rest of the Western world), it leads to a surprising observation: before the industrial revolution, the British did not sleep like us, that is to say in only once. They practiced a two-stage, biphasic sleep: after sleeping for about four hours, they woke up for an hour or two in the middle of the night before going back to bed for a second sleep of four hours. opens a field of research for the social sciences with the task of studying sleep as a social practice that can vary from one era or from one society to another: Sleep Studies. Seen as a social fact, does sleep cease to be a natural fact? Probably not. Reflecting on the social dimension of sleep brings us to the limits of an easy distinction making nature and culture two hermetic domains. Making two major texts by Roger Ekirch accessible to the French readership (his founding article from 2001, as well as another from 2015), this book invites us to meditate on a phenomenon which associates biological constraints with social conditioning.

Sleeping intermittently

Between the XVe and the XVIe century, night is a particularly distressing time when man must not only face darkness, but also vulnerability. To contain their fears, men could resort to very diverse practices. To prevent burglaries and fires, the wealthiest households only went to bed after barricading the house and blowing out the candles. To make it easier to fall asleep, people sometimes took an opium-based medicine, laudanum. In less fortunate homes, people made do with alcohol and sometimes called upon magic: sleeping potions, protective incantations and anti-nightmare amulets were part of the repertoire of comforting practices then in use. Prayer, of course, was another way to find serenity. Despite all these efforts, the nights remain difficult: physical pain, the cold, intrusions, the cries of children are all factors likely to interrupt a night. Ekirch suggests that this poor quality sleep was probably insufficient for rest for the working classes. This hypothesis would allow us to better understand certain period documents which complain of the sluggishness of these laborers who fall asleep in the middle of the day. It is very likely that these workers, who were criticized for their laziness, were simply tired.

But Ekirch draws our attention to something even more surprising: at that time, the British practiced biphasic sleep, in two parts of four hours separated by an interval of an hour or more. We then distinguish a first sleep of a second sleepthe interval between the two being simply called the day before (watch). An astonishing diversity of occupations was possible during this waking moment: some went to check the livestock, others did their laundry, some got up to write, by the flame of a candle or in the darkness. For many, it was the ideal time to be intimate or, more platonically, to chat. It was also an opportunity to reflect on the past day, the next day, or the dreams we had during our first sleep. On this occasion, Ekirch returns to the importance of dreams at this time: beyond the oracular dimension that could be attributed to them, dreams were, already before Freud, considered as a means of self-knowledge (p. 62 ).

From artificial light to middle-of-the-night insomnia

Diversifying his sources, Ekirch shows that the practice of biphasic sleep is not limited to the British Isles of the XVe and XVIe century: we can find evocations of it in the texts of Antiquity or in the observations made by anthropologists of certain traditional societies. This observation tends to bring back to us the surprise that the discovery of this sleep in two parts could arouse: in the light of history and anthropology, it was not the British of the Renaissance who had unusual sleep practices, it’s us. How, then, can we explain our singularity? Among the proposed answers, we will first note the physiological effect of artificial light: research carried out in the 1990s shows that, deprived of artificial light for several weeks, men spontaneously begin to sleep in a very close to the biphasic sleep that we have described. Another determining factor: after the industrial revolution, men went to bed later while still getting up just as early. This reduced sleep duration is likely accompanied by greater fatigue which will contribute to the change in social expectations regarding sleep. More and more, we seek to have efficient, shortest and most restorative sleep possible. In the medical literature of XIXe century, the second sleep is considered unrefreshing and even harmful, and it is recommended to get up from the first awakening, valuing the time thus saved as a moment capable of enriching oneself. A newspaper from 1849 explains to us that, by sleeping a little less, and working just one hour more, workers could earn $78,000 in thirty years (p. 98)! Throughout the descriptions, of which we obviously only give a brief overview here, we gradually see how the organization and expectations of a society can transform the manifestations of what we may have thought of as a biological constant.

The historical construction of a monophasic sleep practice perceived as “normal” goes with a transformation of what we identify as “abnormal” sleep. This is how Ekirch traces the emergence of a new pathology: middle-of-the-night insomnia. Until the end of XIXe century, the insomnia reported in the medical literature is almost always insomnia at the beginning of the night, which reflects a difficulty in entering the first sleep. It was only at the beginning of XXe century that doctors began to describe a form of insomnia linked to waking up in the middle of the night. Gradually, we begin to consider insomnia in the middle of the night as a precursor symptom of nervous breakdown. An entire pharmacopoeia specifically designed to help individuals stay asleep throughout the night is beginning to develop. The forgetting of biphasic sleep comes from the fact that the practice of monophasic sleep has gradually become established not only as “normal”, but also as “natural”. Thus the social conditioning of sleep allows us to reflect on the historical construction of the concepts that we use to evaluate it.

Sleep as a research object for the social sciences

In this edition, Ekirch’s two articles are framed by two enlightening texts on the challenges of an analysis of sleep specific to the social sciences. The first is an afterword written by the anthropologist Matthew Wolf-Meyer, author of an important book on insomnia, which paints a very interesting landscape of Sleep Studies. According to him, this research is divided into three main approaches. The first analyzes sleep in terms of culture, asking how our social expectations shape our biological experiences. The second develops in terms ofeconomy, by focusing on the effects of work organization on practices and pathological definitions of sleep. The last is done in terms of nature, considering that the forms of sleep considered pathological are above all variants of natural sleep disrupted by the conditions of modern life. Without seeking to separate these different currents, Wolf-Meyer suggests that, taken together, these three approaches make it possible to define the discursive space of Sleep Studies : each of them questions in its own way the relationships of interdependence which link culture, economy and nature.

The second text is the preface by Jérôme Vidal which notably raises the question of the political issues of Sleep Studies. He invites us to be wary of authors, sometimes famous, who position themselves on the question of sleep policy while neglecting the sociohistorical dimension brought to light by Ekirch. It first targets those who, in the name of a purely neuro-clinical conception of sleep, begin to propose new rest practices serving above all the interests of insurance companies and employers – but also those who, in the name of an overly simplistic critique of capitalism, do not understand that here, the real political issue lies first and foremost in the way in which sleep increasingly tends to be shared unequally in society.

Beyond the question of sleep, Ekirch’s research encourages us to reconsider the parts of our social lives that we tend to relate to the inflexible rules of our biological nature. Let’s think, for example, of food, or even childcare. Perhaps we would benefit from remembering that the purely clinical description of a biological activity is not enough to understand how it fits into a form of social life. In the same spirit, we can consider that the case of insomnia in the middle of the night exemplifies the fact that, if social expectations can transform certain biological manifestations, they cannot completely control them and that, in the blind spots of our ideals and our norms give rise to new forms of pathology.