The (Pseudo) Science of Sleep

For years, doctors have been discouraged by Americans’ disregard for and mismanagement of their sleep. (“I might as well have been running a chain of beauty parlors for the last four decades” is how one described his advocacy.) But bragging about how little you sleep, a hallmark of the ’80s power broker, is starting in certain circles to come off as masochistic buffoonery. The sleep docs we once ignored appear on morning shows to offer tips. Health professionals and marketers are hopeful that a new seriousness about sleep will continue moving out of a luxury-minded vanguard and into the mainstream. Sleep may finally be claiming its place beside diet and exercise as both a critical health issue and a niche for profitable consumer products. […]

Our conception of sleep as an unbroken block is so innate that it
can seem inconceivable that people only two centuries ago should have
experienced it so differently. Yet in an experiment at the National
Institutes of Health a decade ago, men kept on a schedule of 10 hours
of light and 14 hours of darkness — mimicking the duration of day and
night during winter — fell into the same, segmented pattern. They began
sleeping in two distinct, roughly four-hour stretches, with one to
three hours of somnolence — just calmly lying there — in between. Some sleep disorders,
namely waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall
asleep again, “may simply be this traditional pattern, this normal
pattern, reasserting itself,” Ekirch told me. “It’s the seamless sleep
that we aspire to that’s the anomaly, the creation of the modern
world.”

With two parents and other family members who have or had sleep disorders, I’ve always been interested in its mechanics. The Times Magazine takes a look at the science and myth of a good night’s rest.