We take pills, potions and vitamins, get special pillows and now have beds that will tell us whether we have achieved that sought-after thing called a good night's sleep – eight uninterrupted hours. It's a multi-billion dollar industry but evidence is mounting that prior to the industrial revolution, we slept in two shifts with a period of activity between them. We can thank our pituitary gland that makes it a hypnotic time, a creative time.
In the pre-industrial past, it went like this: the "first" sleep started after dinner and sunset, which was close to 8 p.m. One slept about four hours, woke up at midnight and then spent two or three hours stoking the fire, playing music, making love, checking on food, telling stories, even visiting friends. Then, back to bed for the "second sleep" until dawn. In modern parlance, it's called segmented sleep.
A Hypnotic, Creative Time of Night
"Back when segmented sleep was common, this period between "ﬁrst" and "second" sleep inspired reverence. The French called it dorveille [pronounced 'door-vay'] or wakesleep, a hypnotic state. English speakers called it 'the watch,'" says Jesse Barron, in "Letter of Recommendation: Segmented Sleep."
Wakesleep for creativity! For all those hoping for a little solitude and silence for creative pursuits, the middle of the night, with the kids in bed and the dishes done, is a pretty good way to turn the whole house into a private writing room. And how many business people come up great ideas while 'talking with the ceiling goddess'? I teach students at #TheWritingSalon to nap if they feel themselves losing their connection with the subconscious or 'the zone', 'when the words just flow' or 'when the characters speak to me.'
I don't plan for it but whenever I find myself awake, really awake, at night (my favorite seems to be 2 a.m.) the time between the sleeps is very special. It would disturb the neighbors if I did something loud like vacuum – almost always a good thing to avoid! It's not a time to text or call anyone, even on the East Coast, and sending emails at two o'clock in the morning makes you seem obsessed. I live alone so in wakesleep I can sit up and dictate new material in bed or turn on the music and all the lights, rattle around in the kitchen, clock two or three great hours. Ah, dorveille!
The Science Behind It
"Night also triggers hormonal changes in our brains that suit creativity. …During night-waking, the pituitary gland excretes high levels of prolactin, the hormone associated with sensations of peace and with the dreamlike hallucinations we sometimes experience as we fall asleep, or upon waking. It is produced when we feel sexual satisfaction, when nursing mothers lactate, and it causes hens to sit on their eggs for long periods," says Karen Emslie in Aeon Magazine
Better yet, prolactin "continues to be produced during periods of 'quiet wakefulness' between sleeps, triggered by the natural cycles of light and dark, not tied to sleep per se. Blissfully zonked out by prolactin, our night brains allow ideas to emerge and intertwine as they might in a dream."
Creative Folk with Benevolent Insomnia
In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (2013), Mason Currey describes the routines of famous writers and artists who were segmented sleepers.
- Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, would wake around 4am, unable to fall back to sleep – so he would work for three or four hours, then take a nap.
- Nobel Prize-winning novelist Knut Hamsun would often wake after sleeping for a couple of hours and 'start writing immediately in the dark if I feel something is streaming through me.'
- The psychologist B F Skinner kept a clipboard, paper and pencil by his bed to work during periods of night wakefulness.
- The author Marilynne Robinson regularly woke to read or write during what she called her 'benevolent insomnia'.
The Industrial Revolution Ends Segmented Sleep
References to the first and second sleep started to disappear in the late 17th century with the Industrial Revolution. London was lit by street lamps in 1684 and by the end of the century, "more than 50 of Europe's major towns and cities were lit at night" making it possible to be out past sunset, and increasingly productive during the evenings, according to historian A. Roger Ekirch's book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past (2006)
But perhaps now we've come full circle: Baron says "it was the Industrial Revolution, saturating us with electric light, that caused dorveille to obsolesce — but now it's electricity that makes it so useful. Dorveille is the only part of the day when no one expects to hear from anyone at all. You can keep yourself unavailable without that abstract sense of guilt…Dorveille's appeal doesn't derive from historicity: what appeals is the escape from the very conditions that obliterated it."