Fish Don’t Know They’re in Water

John, a former student of the M&T Apprenticeship and current Daily Dispatch follower, recently sent me a link to an interesting article posted on the BBC. The piece discussed historian Roger Ekirch’s research into human sleep patterns throughout time. Ekirch’s interest in the subject became part of his book about the history of night titled At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, and it reveals a fascinating aspect of human society and ubiquitous change. The insight this article highlighted was the worldwide pre-industrial human pattern of “biphasic sleep” – two sleep sessions (the first starting somewhere around 9:00 pm and the second starting around 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning) with a several-hour wakeful period of productivity in the middle of the night. That’s right – people of the past woke in the middle of their “two sleeps” to do chores or to relax. Ekrich found scores of references to the “first sleep,” the “morning sleep,” and the “watch” period between them. And even though a number of his sources were English, Ekirch found this pattern through cultures around the globe: Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, South America, and the Middle East.

This is absolutely mind-boggling to me. Why does this seem so utterly foreign to us? Why do I find this hard to even imagine?

Ekirch traced the disappearance of this age-old human rest pattern to the advent of artificial lighting, which truncated the night’s total sleep. “As well as altering the population’s circadian rhythms, the artificial lighting lengthened the first sleep, and shortened the second. ‘And I was able to trace [this], almost decade by decade, over the course of the 19th Century,’ says Ekirch. . . . [T]he Industrial Revolution hadn’t just changed our technology, but our biology, too.”

This fascinating research shows us again how radically human culture has been affected by the industrial mode of life. In our day, it’s a given that our rest is primarily aimed at “recharging,” our work is commended only when it is efficient, and discontent in the whole arrangement is a simple matter of rejiggering the “wiring” of our brains. Rather than carefully attending to our selves and the givenness of the world around us, we run to pundits for precepts and physicians for prescriptions. 

Our age is an age of technocracy.

Although the article John sent me wasn’t about woodworking, he somehow knew it would be right up my alley. In my struggle to understand the artisans of the past, I’ve found it a valuable exercise to try to see things from outside my 21st-century vantage point. Though it’ll never be fully achievable (I am a man of my time), it is always worth the effort. In fact, there is nothing more obvious to me in this discussion than the fact that it is precisely because I am so shaped by my culture that I need to expose myself to other perspectives – whether they be of different people or different times.

As the saying goes, “fish don’t know they’re in water.”



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