Why shouldn't I sleep in multiple phases?

Main topicDeath's little brother

In a bed in the dormitory at the University of Regensburg, a patient's eyes are closing. Extremely thin wires connect your body to several devices. They measure their breath, their oxygen consumption, their eye movements and the signal waves in their brain.

"After a few minutes of sleep stage one, I see that sleep stage two begins. This is announced by sleep spindles, which are very high-frequency, short, very short, spindly EEG waves."

In the next room, an employee observes on a monitor how the patient's brain sinks deeper and deeper into sleep.

"And sleep stage two, you often see so-called K-complexes, which look like a capitalized K. That means with the K-complex you see a wave that makes a big swing up and down and then back in again normal EEG. And in between, so-called spindles keep showing up. "

Sick, stupid and fat

Because he loses consciousness, sleep was formerly called the "brother of death". Today biologists and physicians consider it more an object of precise research. They measure the body and brain functions of sleep and derive objective recommendations from them. People, it is said, need a minimum amount of sleep and have to do this as often as possible throughout the night. Otherwise the consequences would be fatal, says Jürgen Zulley, the former head of the Regensburg sleep laboratory and one of the pioneers of German sleep research:

"Too little sleep makes you sick, stupid and fat - so far often significantly underestimated."

Sleep researchers want to find out in their laboratories why sleep disorders occur in order to better manage and control sleep. For the historian Hannah Ahlheim from the University of Göttingen, this desire to gain control is an aspect that generally characterizes the relationship between people and their sleep:

"Gaining control first of all simply relates to the idea of ​​saying, firstly, you can understand sleep and, secondly, you can possibly also control it in the sense that you find rules for how to sleep better or how to sleep well and properly, maybe also sleep more productively , sleeps more efficiently. I'm not even sure if it's always a real gain in control, but at least it's this fantasy of control. "

Gaining and losing control

Control over sleep also means: Overcoming the fear of unconsciousness or bad dreams. But there is also the opposite: the fascination with losing control.

"This is of course also a liberation, that is, it is a time in which I do not have to control, do not have to plan and do not have to work in that sense, but it is also a time in which you can simply" slide over ", So in that sense, this loss is also a gain in that sense. It's a private room, you close the door, you go to bed - so, you company, you stay outside, I just sleep now, I take me this time for me! "

The desire for control and the longing for loss of control characterize sleep equally. Hannah Ahlheim has therefore called an anthology published by her on the history of sleep in modern times "Gain control - Loss of control": With the support of the Gerda-Henkel Foundation, she has been researching sleep as part of cultural and social history for several years:

"On the subject of sleep, you can get to very fundamental processes in society, to power relations, to social differences, to social determinations that are made in society. So who can, for example, dispose of their time freely, who can decide, when and where he sleeps, who is free in it, who is not free in it at all? "

The little sleep during the day

The norm of sleeping continuously at night in order to be wide awake during the day applies to almost all developed countries today. But there are also some special sleep cultures. For example, the people of the southern countries traditionally take a nap in the midday heat. In Japan the "inemuri", the short half-sleep during the day, is well accepted. Even a CEO can afford it in a company meeting. And the current sleep norm of Western culture itself is ultimately only a specific product of the industrialization of the 19th century. Before that, the farmers and the first factory workers slept according to different rules, says the medical historian Philipp Osten from the University of Heidelberg:

"I believe, very economically oriented, that you go to sleep when it is possible. That sleep, at least the sleep rhythm, is completely different in winter than in summer, that it is dictated whether you have chickens or not, or cattle what has to be milked, wild animals that you have to protect them from. But of course that also applies to industrial workers. In the early days of industrialization, you walked to work for up to an hour and a half in the morning, arrived there tired and then actually there was Manufactories that provided rooms where people could sleep in order to take a break. So I strongly believe that sleep is structured by the conditions under which we live. "

The short siesta at noon was not only practiced in southern countries before industrialization. The American historian Roger Ekirch also discovered that until the 18th century, a special night sleep was maintained in large shifts - a two- or even multi-phase sleep. Hannah Ahlheim:

"Well, you didn't sleep through eight hours from ten to six in the morning, you slept in small chunks. You got a first sleep, then there was a short break, and then there was a second sleep. And he thinks that too, for example in memories or in reports of people saying: After my first sleep I got up again briefly, smoked a pipe, then came the second phase of sleep and then I got up. That means he actually found these terms, my first and my second sleep. "

Ekirch found such descriptions in diaries and letters in England, Germany and France, says Ahlheim:

"And the idea that Ekirch came up with is that he says: It was a completely different form of sleeping, which also made a completely different social interaction or contact with oneself possible. So you had this phase of twilight between two phases of sleep. He says there was an age-old path to the psyche that was practicable in those one or two hours when you were half awake, maybe half asleep, and that was dealing with dreams, with ideas, with fantasies made impossible by this 'I'll sleep through' fantasy "."

However, the continuous eight-hour night's sleep did not prevail without arguments about gain and loss of control. During the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, people believed that clear, bright reason could control human life. This also made the old religious idea obsolete that dark sleep should be accepted as God's punishment for original sin. Ahlheim:

"And the enlightening counter-idea is then precisely that you actually have to be awake, have to wake up, shake off the bondage of sleep, says Montesquieu, so you have to get out of this compulsion, so to speak, that is apparently imposed on you. The basic idea of ​​the Enlightenment is of course that it says, the human being has a free will. That means one says, one has the body, one has the soul, they have their own functional mechanisms and actually function separately from one another. what is then controllable according to the enlightened idea is the will of the human being. And that's where the idea comes from to say, okay, if I deal with myself, my world, maybe also with God in an enlightened way, then I can actually act myself work for me and determine my sleep. "

Escape to sleep

Live self-determined and controlled, i.e. sleep in moderation - that was the motto. However, the downside of this educational need for control soon became apparent. In the literature of the time, figures appeared increasingly who had made the experience that man and the world were not so easy to perfect. They were "sleeper figures", tired people who fled to sleep from the incalculable reality, explains Ahlheim:

"Robespierre or Wallenstein, for example, are very expressive figures who actually notice: Everything they try to move and change, guided by reason, fails, and they don't have all the strings in their hands after all. That means this fatigue or that Perhaps fear of the responsibility that the Enlightenment also assigns you, so you just have to act in such a way that the maxim of your own actions can apply to everyone, that is, this perhaps also overstressing of people is of course in these sleeper figures who say: So, I can't anymore, I don't want to anymore. I have to get out of this world of reason that doesn't work the way I would like it to, so I have to sleep. "

At the turn of the 19th century, the romantics criticized this enlightening cult of rational reason and suddenly assessed the loss of control during sleep as positive.

"Easy to say. I am now losing control and that is nice and that is a good thing. Or the idea that the right poetry, the right creative work is only possible if you leave reason aside and then come the beautiful ones, so to speak , the right, the real works of art and pictures all by themselves in the head, without having to work. And that is of course also a countermovement to this claim, you have to sleep moderately and when you are awake you have to control everything moderately and be able to direct everything. "

The dream gate to the absolute

In the course of the 18th century, according to Philipp Osten from the University of Heidelberg, there was a second change in attitudes towards sleep. At first it was interpreted by some philosophers and physicians as the gateway to a higher, absolute consciousness:

"So the idea was - and that was very much the philosopher Schelling, who represented it - that in waking consciousness we have no insight into the absolute. At the moment, however, in which we are unconscious, while we sleep or while we are dead we are absorbed in the absolute and have absolute clarity, it is only forgotten again because we have no consciousness that reflects in this time. "

In order to gain access to the absolute, doctors examined somnambulists, especially in southwest Germany, who are now referred to as sleepwalkers. Doctors expected, for example, that the soul connected with the Absolute in the somnambulistic state could provide information on how to heal a sick person. As fantastic as that sounds, it has had a strong influence on the course of modern medicine, reports Osten:

"These observations of somnambulists, they are criticized above all by physicists and the criticism is that it is incomprehensible. And what do the doctors do? They go and write medical histories that are presented so precisely, so objectively, then by third parties recorded so that in principle one can say that the medical anamnesis dates from this time. "

However, the exact records of half sleep did not reveal any higher consciousness either. From the middle of the 18th century people turned away from the search for the absolute in the somnambulistic soul. The doctors were now more concerned with the hygiene of sleeping areas, and there were also advisors who continued to preach continuous night sleep. In addition, a doctrine came up that linked sleep with the irritation of the nerves.

"From the 1840s onwards, sleep is simply the brain's organ sleep, it has been disenchanted!"

Mind workers need more sleep

The stimuli that penetrate the human nerve tract from society influence and stress the individual. With regard to sleep, a momentous social difference was made, according to Ahlheim:

"So when you work with your head, the brain is irritated and overstimulated because you need your nerves to think. Then you can sleep all the worse, but you need more sleep to regenerate the brain For example, working physically, for which you don't need your brain. And muscles don't have to sleep, that is the idea in the late 19th century, muscles just have to rest and the nerves have to sleep. That means, whoever works with the body doesn't actually need it sleep as badly as the head worker. "

"Then it seemed quite natural to pack several workers together in tiny bedrooms and give them little regeneration time."

Ettenhuber: "Now you can see that the patient is going into sleep stage three, which means that is now deep sleep. And in deep sleep you can see that the patient has more delta waves, so these are slower, calmer waves compared to sleep stage one or to the waking state. "

In the Regensburg sleep laboratory, the patient entered the deep sleep phase, one of the phases that every person repeats several times a night. However, according to Jürgen Zulley, the deep sleep phase is particularly important.

"We recognize this from the fact that if someone does not sleep one night, he has exactly twice as much deep sleep the following night at the expense of all other sleep stages, and that would mean: deep sleep is number one. When we are sick, we have more deep sleep and the activity of the immune system is increased. So this healthy sleep really finds its scientific proof in here. "

Sleepless in the saddle

The 20th century has tremendously increased knowledge of the physiology of sleep and its importance for health. For a long time, the eight-hour night sleep was also scientifically considered the measure of all things. At the same time, however, insomnia was also researched. In the middle of the 20th century, radio disc jockeys competed in public competitions in the USA: Who can moderate music programs for longer without sleeping? Sleep researchers and military doctors observed, for example, the famous disc jockey Peter Tripp, who stayed awake for over 200 hours until he hallucinated rabbits. The military doctors were particularly interested in the consequences of sleep deprivation as a method of torture. Cases like that of Peter Tripp, says Hanna Ahlheim, have given sleep deprivation public attention:

"And that leads to, I would say, that it also loses its threat potential to a certain extent, that is, it becomes normal, it becomes observable, it is exhibited. It is fine again afterwards, everyone who has to see that too Sleep for a long time and then it's like before, so you can continue to moderate, continue to live. That means it is also a staging of such a fearful situation, which is taken away from the horror by simply becoming normal. "

Insomnia seems to be usable and manageable to some extent: either for pleasure or torture. In the transition to the 21st century, doctors no longer talk about eight-hour sleep, but rather six to nine-hour sleep, and one advises a power nap, the energizing short nap during the day. Overall, according to Philipp Osten, attitudes towards sleep are becoming more and more pragmatic and flexible:

"We have very different individual needs and many sleep researchers respond to this by saying that one person has a completely different sleep rhythm than everyone else. We know it, the day people, the night people, when do I work most effectively, when do I like to rest and sleep like, that is very different from person to person. "

Individualized and flexible sleep - it fits in well with an individualized performance society in which there are many different forms of work and times: from normal industrial work to home and self-employed work to shift work.
Does that mean that sleep has finally become controllable according to human needs and everyone can dream when they want? People are taking sleeping pills more and more frequently, and working hours are getting longer. Hannah Ahlheim's conclusion is therefore ambiguous:

"That is actually a very difficult problem for the history of the 20th century in general, that is, whether one writes the history of increasing individualization and flexibility as a history of liberation or as a history of ever more subtle and detailed access to the individual. And I would say it always has both. There is always the risk that you are now even better usable, even more 'perfect' - very clear: With sleep rhythms, you immediately notice that you are more efficient, more economical, better usable, you know when I am fit, when do I have to be in the office, when do I have to go to bed. That’s it on the one hand, on the other hand it’s an incredible relief to be able to say, I’ll do it at my own pace. And it’s also a form of freedom that a large part of the population does not have. "


Hannah Ahlheim (ed.). Gain-control loss. The history of sleep in modern times, Campus Verlag Frankfurt / New York 2014.

Roger Ekirch: In the hour of the night. A story of darkness, Bergisch-Gladbach 2006