Lifestyle: Sleep

October 19, 2017 / INSPIRATION, Lifestyle

Sleep: a human history

‘What passes for ‘normal’ sleep today is, by any historical standard, quite strange,’ says Benjamin Reiss, US academic and author of new book Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World.  Although sleep is a hot topic today, from dream interpretation, communal siestas in the 60s to the trendy Paleo ethos of returning to caveman-style human hibernation, we aren’t the first generation to micro-manage our kip, it turns out. Here, Reiss provides a potted history of sleep.





6-7 million years ago Human ancestors descend from trees to live on ground. Anthropologists think that sleeping in groups on stable ground-beds came about as a defense against new terrestrial predators.

7th century BC Mesopotamians invent first pillows, made out of stone carved with a half-moon curve to support the neck. The function of these pillows was less to provide comfort than to raise the head from the ground so that insects wouldn’t crawl into the mouth, ears, or nose.




17th-18th centuries The first European middle-class homes are built with specially appointed sleeping rooms. Before this, families slept collectively in hallways or other rooms which served different purposes at day and night.

1878 Thomas Edison invents the incandescent electric bulb. Interior spaces are more brightly lit, and attractive entertainment done by night light – reading, singing, sewing – seduce people into staying up later at home.

Late 19th century As British physician Doctor Richardson put it in 1880: “The system of having beds in which two persons can sleep is always, to some extent, unhealthy” because re-breathing the “heavy, unhealthy” air of another is “sickening.” The vogue for twin beds is born.



1970 The world’s first clinical sleep center opens at Stanford University. Today over 2500 accredited sleep centers exist in the United States alone, treating over 75 recognized sleep disorders.

2005 The centuries-long movement toward solitary sleeping takes its toll on marriage: a 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll that one in four couples sleep in separate bedrooms. The trend affects interior design: by 2016, one in three people seeking homes in the $2million-plus range sought dual master bedrooms.

2017 Today, sleep strategies are a hot – and divisive – topic. Modern employers in corporate and creative industries – such as Huffington Post founder and sleep enthusiast Arianna Huffington – pride themselves on encouraging snoozes and install Nap Rooms in the workplace – while other companies still list ‘sleeping on the job’ as a punishable offence. The battle against screens in the bedroom – which provide distractions that keep us up later than we plan, and emit the sleep quality-eroding blue light – continues. Ironically, wearable monitoring devices – phone apps, smart watches – do mean we are better tuned in to our sleep patterns and needs.


‘Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World’ by Benjamin Reiss, £22, Basic Books


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