Zoe Weitzman
Oct 20, 2016

Sleep and modernity make strange bedfellows

Flamingo's Zoe Weitzman wakes at 3 am to provide a first-person report on the trendy idea of 'bi-phasic' sleep.

Zoe Weitzman
Zoe Weitzman

It’s dark. I’m fumbling for my phone at the edge of the nightstand, its alarm medley just grating enough to get me up. 3 am, it reads.

Perfect.

This is my first foray into the fringe health trend of segmented sleep, the newest and, at first glance, least conventional of bedtime crazes. For those of you who missed the recent press flurry, segmented sleep goes like this: (1) pass out early (2) wake up and move about for a few hours in the middle of the night, then (3) drift back to sleep before your standard morning rise-and-shine. A growing number of adherents claim this “bi-phasic” (in two phases) sleep is more natural than its uninterrupted counterpart. They report sharper daytime thinking and boosted productivity. Insomnia, they say, leads to greater wakefulness.

To be clear, there’s no medical evidence that segmented sleep is good for you. But recent years have seen plenty of unproven myths about bedtime. Now that a good night’s sleep has been yoked to that set of over-chewed buzzwords—wellness, fitness, betterment—it’s seen less as a physiological obligation, a requisite third of one’s life, and more of an access point to cresting cultural trends.

Bedtime is currently en vogue. Look to press captains like Arianna Huffington, who’s leaving her eponymous media empire to focus on a ‘sleep your way to the top’ campaign. In the soporific beverage category, there’s Dreamwater (I have friends who swear by the stuff, despite its tinny ‘snoozeberry’ flavoring), the mainstream embrace of kava, and a suddenly crowded landscape of sleepy teas. Hashtags like #JOMO (joy of missing out) glorify bed-ridden indolence. Our iPhones are cluttered with tracker apps that count all 40 winks, our closets with sets of stylish RTW jammies, the sloth’s answer to athleisure.

But now I’m rambling—blame it on the late hour. The shades are open, but my window is a flat, inky square, suddenly lambent when the odd car passes by.

To brands hoping to make a profit on our desire for (and apparent inability to get) our nightly eight hours: I get it. We’re living in a golden age for sleep. There are already a handful of success stories—Casper has vanquished competitors by offering a more playful spin on restfulness, and Vicks has ingeniously divorced Nyquil from acetaminophen to create ZZZquil – along with melatonin, the sleep aid.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

But I think our interest in biphasic rest is different, proof that sleep as a trend is still evolving. The biggest reason most segmented sleepers choose to wake up and stir about at 3 am isn’t modern conceptions of wellness, but because of theories from historical behaviourists about the past. Apparently, before the advent of electricity, we all broke our nights up into “first sleeps” and “second sleeps”. Medieval dozers used that interim window for reading, writing, prayer and—for those with willing bedfellows—more hush-hush libidinous pursuits. When it comes down to it, segmented sleepers cling to the same logic that motivates 'paleo' dieters: our ancestors did it, so it’s healthier.

Segmented sleep isn’t popular because of stylish pyjamas or Huffington-led power-nap crusades, but because it gives us a break from all that. Its beauty is in its silence, in its unbranded ‘me-time.’ I’d argue that ultimately, witching hour sentience offers an escape from—rather than its embrace of—the trappings of modernity.

What did I do from 3 to 5 am? In addition to jotting down notes for this piece, I read. I drank hot water with lemon. I hand-washed a dress. I barely touched my phone (which I typically treat as another appendage).

I’m reminded, finally, that sleep is one of the few question marks that endures in today’s biology textbooks. Our understanding of why we need sleep, of what our dreams actually do, is still soft and speculative.

But maybe there’s something reassuring in that. In an age of answers and unending accessibility, night time’s ambiguity has increased in value; 3 am in many ways is a final frontier, one last mystery space that is truly private, truly ours. At least, that’s where I landed on this in the middle of the night. But I may have to sleep on it.

Zoe Weitzman is research executive at Flamingo New York

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