Vino durmiente (Photo: Inigo Mujika)

Sleeping wine (Photo: Inigo Mujika)


I have written about sleep before. In my June 2011 blogpost Sleep, the key to recovery and training adaptation I mentioned the negative impact of insufficient sleep on recovery, training adaptation and competition performance. I also provided some practical tips to promote athletes’ sleep quantity and/or quantity.

This time I just want to share some fascinating texts about sleep that were published 155 years ago (Hitchcock & Hitchcock. Elementary Anatomy and Physiology for Colleges, Academies and Other Schools, 1860). Please note the horrible passing reference to Native Americans being tortured at the stake…


“611. Definition of Sleep.— Need of Sleep.— Sleep, “tired nature’s sweet restorer” is a state of the body, in which there is a more or less perfect suspension of the activity of the brain. The functions of digestion, secretion, and respiration, proceed during the soundest sleep, though with less activity than during the wakeful state. In many cases, however, the functions of the brain do not entirely cease, as is seen in the phenomena of dreaming, where the brain seems to be actively at work, but the senses and animal functions are quiescent. Sleep is demanded by all animals to procure rest to the different organs of the body, and in health it comes to all, though in different degrees of soundness, but generally the greater the exhaustion, the more complete the sleep.”


“612. Periodical Tendency of Sleep.— The Will can for some Time overcome Sleep.—The tendency to sleep is periodical. All persons feel an inclination to sleep during some portion of the twenty-four hours, and during the night, if health be good and nature not perverted. Some strong intellectual effort, however, or some powerful emotion, will overcome drowsiness for a long time, as in the case of the student working out a difficult problem, or a mother watching her sick child. But when the problem is mastered, and the child has safely passed the crisis, sleep comes on with irresistible force. Cases occur constantly to show that the brain must have its repose in spite of intellectual effort or danger. It is related that boys wearied out with continued labor in the battle of the Nile, slept during a part of the action, and in another naval engagement, a captain slept two hours within a yard of his largest gun, which was kept in action during the whole time. Indians at the stake of torture will sleep on the least remission of agony, but awake as soon as it is renewed again. And we learn that a most barbarous punishment is still practiced in China, that of keeping a victim awake until he dies of sheer exhaustion. The distress of it is said to be terrible.”


“613. Inducements to Sleep.— Sleep sometimes under the Control of the Will.— Ordinarily darkness and silence promote sleep ; but if a person once becomes habituated to noise during slumber— if it be a continuous one—he can not sleep well without it. Thus persons living in the vicinity of forges and noisy mills can not readily sleep elsewhere. And a monotonous repetition of sounds is a most favorable provocative to sleep, the cause of which is that other impressions can not so readily be made on the mind, and thus the sleeper is less easily roused. A dull reader on a dull subject has a most ready effect in producing sleep, as well as the sound of a distant waterfall, or the rustling of leaves in a forest. Rubbing many parts of the skin, or combing the hair by another person, will often cause drowsiness, and sometimes sleep. Again a person can sometimes put himself to sleep, if restless, by a monotonous intellectual effort, such as the rehearsal of a Latin paradigm, or counting the rain-drops, as they fall from the eave trough into the spout.”


Dusk in Reykjavik (Photo: Inigo Mujika)

Dusk in Reykjavik (Photo: Inigo Mujika)

“614. Effect of Habit on Sleep.— The effect of habit is powerful in producing sleep. Let one be accustomed to retire early —in accordance with nature— and sleepiness comes at the usual hour for retiring ; but if a person for a series of years is in the habit of sleeping the latter part of the night and early in the morning, it is almost impossible for him to sleep early in the night. Those persons who, like sailors, soldiers, and watchers, are obliged to catch sleep when they can get it, and then only in small amounts at a time, sleep with but little difficulty when the opportunity presents itself. Captain Barclay, who walked one thousand miles in as many consecutive hours, had such a power over himself, that he was asleep the moment he lay down. Some physicians have the same power.”


“615. Preventives of Sleep.—Any unusual noise or place of sleeping will prevent or disturb the sleep of many persons. Thus the singing of a mosquito keeps many a man awake a long time. But if a noise be repeated often, it will have no effect of this kind. The college Freshman for the few first mornings is readily awaked by the first stroke of the early prayer-bell, but in a short time it has no effect whatever “A gentleman who had taken his passage on board a man of war, was aroused on the first morning by the report of the morning gun, which chanced to be fired just above his head; the shock was so violent as to cause him to jump out of bed. On the second morning he was again awakened, but this time he merely started and sat up in bed; on the third morning the report had simply the effect of causing him to open his eyes for a moment and turn in his bed; on the fourth morning it ceased to affect him at all, and his slumbers continued to be undisturbed so long as he remained on board.””


“616. An Absence of Accustomed Sounds prevents Sleep.— The reverse of this sometimes happens, if there be a cessation of monotonous and unaccustomed sound, by which sleep was induced. Thus a person who has been read or preached to sleep, will awake if the reader or preacher pause or stop, before any disturbance is made, and a person asleep in a railway train, will often awake on the stopping, or even on the slackening of the train.”


“617. Amount of Sleep.— The amount of sleep necessary for man, varies exceedingly, being affected by the conditions of age, temperament, habit, and exhaustion. Infants and very old people sleep the most. The former require it that the constructive process may go on as uninterruptedly as possible, and they generally sleep three fourths of the time. The latter need a large amount of sleep, because the vital energies are so feeble.”


“618. A Lymphatic Temperament a Sleepy one.—Persons of a lymphatic temperament, those who are seldom excited, sleep more than those of a nervous temperament, who are always rapid and quick in their movements. The former live slowly, and but comparatively little waste is going on, and consequently the brain is all the time nearer to sleep than in the latter class, whose brain, when awake, is very active, and when asleep, is asleep very soundly.”


“619. Effect of Habit on the Amount of Sleep—Remarkable Cases.—The amount of sleep is greatly modified by habit, and often the briefest sleepers have been men of the greatest activity. If a person acquire the habit of sleeping but little, he must sleep very profoundly, so that what is lost in quantity, is made up in intensity. The habit of taking but little sleep, however, is not a sure indication that a proper amount of it has been secured. Frederic the Great, and John Hunter slept but five hours out of the twenty-four; and General Elliot, engaged in the defense of Gibraltar, and Napoleon, often slept but four hours out of the twenty-four. The general rule, however, seems to be that man should take from six to eight hours of the twenty-four, for uninterrupted slumber. Women in general seem to require rather more.”


“620. Mode of Access of Sleep.— To some sleep comes on instantly when the will determines upon it, but to others it is a gradual and tedious process, especially in ill health, or an excited mental state. Many physicians drop asleep as soon as the head touches the pillow, and are aroused by no ordinary sound, such as the tread of another person in the room, or the shutting of a door, but wake as soon as the night-bell is rung. Sir E. Codrington, when a young man in the naval service, was very active at one time in looking out for signals, and was employed during his waking hours in this business. Hence his sleep was very solid, and he was roused by no ordinary sound, but his comrades amused themselves by whispering the word “signal” in his ear, when he was at once aroused and fit for duty.”

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