“Despite the modern obsession with a good night’s rest, more of us are sleeping less. Perhaps we should pay attention to the advice of early modern doctors.”“Detail from A Maid Asleep by Johannes Vermeer, c.1656–57.”
by Katharine A. Craik
“Sleep is an urgent topic for neuroscientists and now more than ever is known about its crucial importance for concentration and memory formation. Despite all this, the western world spends fewer and fewer hours asleep. With human interaction increasingly taking place in timeless virtual spaces, our time spent asleep is shortening and our working days are lengthening, with profound implications for the quality of the lives we lead. In particular, the impact of light-emitting screens upon the circadian rhythms, so essential to well-being, are only just becoming apparent. A similar debate took place during the Enlightenment when artificial lighting offered many people the novel opportunity to manipulate their hours of wakeful productivity. But the origins of sleep science lie centuries earlier, in Renaissance theories about the body’s sensitivity to light and darkness.
“The science of sleep was developing rapidly in the 17th century, when rest was regarded as one of the core factors for maintaining good health, along with other essential ‘non-naturals’ such as air, food and drink. Most writers agreed that the optimum quantity of sleep lay somewhere between seven and nine hours and that its health-giving benefits were many and varied. The medical literature of the time however suggests that people – then as now – were often plagued by slumber’s elusiveness.”