The Biology of Bonsai Trees: The Science Behind the Traditional Japanese Art Form

The art of bonsai originated in China. As subsequently refined in Japan, its techniques produce miniature trees that give aesthetic pleasure to people all around Asia and the wider world beyond. This appreciation is reflected in the couple-on-the-street interview footage incorporated into “The Biology Behind Bonsai Trees,” the video above from Youtuber Jonny Lim, better known as The Backpacking Biologist. Not only does Lim gather positive views on bonsai around Los Angeles, he also finds in that same city a bonsai nursery run by Bob Pressler, who has spent more than half a century mastering the art.

Even Pressler admits that he doesn’t fully understand the biology of bonsai. Lim’s search for scientific answers sends him to “something called the apical meristem.” That’s the part of the tree made of “stem cells found at the tips of the shoots and roots.” Stem cells, as you may remember from their long moment in the news a few years ago, have the potential to turn into any kind of cell.


The cells of bonsai are the same size as those of regular trees, research has revealed, but thanks to the deliberate cutting of roots and resultant restriction of nutrients to the apical meristem, their leaves are made up of fewer cells in total. Lim draws an analogy with baking cookies of different sizes: “The components are exactly the same. The only difference is that bonsais have less starting material.”

Having gained his own appreciation for bonsai, Lim also waxes poetic on how these miniature trees “still grow on the face of adversity, and they do so perfectly.” But as one commenter replies, “Why recreate adversity?” Claiming that the process is “crippling trees for just aesthetics,” this individual presents one of the known cases against bonsai. But that case, according to the experts Lim consults, is based on certain common misconceptions about the processes involved: that the wires used to position limbs “torture” the trees, for example. But as others point out, do those who make these anti-bonsai arguments feel just as pained about the many lawns that get mown down each and every week?

Related content:

The Art & Philosophy of Bonsai

This 392-Year-Old Bonsai Tree Survived the Hiroshima Atomic Blast & Still Flourishes Today: The Power of Resilience

What Makes the Art of Bonsai So Expensive?: $1 Million for a Bonsai Tree, and $32,000 for Bonsai Scissors

The Art of Creating a Bonsai: One Year Condensed Condensed Into 22 Mesmerizing Minutes

Daisugi, the 600-Year-Old Japanese Technique of Growing Trees Out of Other Trees, Creating Perfectly Straight Lumber

A Digital Animation Compares the Size of Trees: From the 3-Inch Bonsai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Ergonomics Experts Explain How to Set Up Your Desk

Ergonomics aren’t a joke, Jim. – Dwight Schrute, The Office

Technological innovations are snowballing faster than ever in the third decade of the 21st-century. A home office set-up that would have been cause for pride in 2019 seems woefully inadequate now.

Just ask anyone whose desk job pivoted to virtual in March of 2020.

So, perhaps don’t take physical therapist’s Jon Cinkay’s nearly three year old advice in the above Wall Street Journal video as gospel, but rather as a chance to check in with your carpal tunnels, your aching neck and back, and your favorite refurbished office furniture outlet.


Cinkay assumes that your desk is a standard 29 – 30” tall, which is not the case here, but okay…

Our bodies’ unique dimensions mean that no desk can be a one-size-fits-all proposition, and Cinkay makes a robust case for making modifications:

1. Adjust your desk chair

Cinkay recommends adjusting the seat height until your elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle when your fingers are on the keyboard. (As of this writing, keyboards have not yet become obsolete.)

In a 2020 article for the Hospital of Special Surgery, he also recommends making sure your chair’s armrests can fit under your desk to avoid postural compromises when reaching for your keyboard or mouse.

He also wisely advises looking for a chair with a minimum 30-day warranty so you don’t get stuck with an expensive mistake.

2. Consider a footstool

If cranking your desk chair to the perfect height leaves your feet dangling, you’ll need a footstool to help your knees maintain a proper 90-degree bend. If you can’t invest in a high tech adjustable footstool, a ream of paper will do in a pinch.

Tech expert David Zhang, who we’ll hear from soon below, rests his cute striped socks on a yoga mat.

Who among us does not have dozens of things that could be pressed into service as a footstool?

I am left to ponder the fate of the decorative needlepointed footstools my late grandmother and her sisters scattered around their living rooms.

Can an actual footstool be considered a footstool hack?

3. Adjust the height of your monitor 

To avoid neck pain, use a monitor stand to position the top of the screen level with your eyes. If you’re working with a laptop, you’ll need a stand, a separate keyboard and and a mouse.

Cinkay’s monitor stand hack is – you guessed it – a ream of paper.

Mine is 5000 Years of the Art of India which is about the same thickness as a ream of paper and was in easy reach at the library where I work.

To judge by some of the comments on Cinkay’s Wall Street Journal video, his keyboard dates to the Stone Age.

Whatever his keyboard vintage, the aforementioned article did suggest gel wrist rests to relieve pressure on the sensitive carpal tunnel area, but watch out! Zhang is not a fan!

4. Get a Headset

Leaving aside the fact that the phone in question appears to be a landline, a headset allows you to keep your head on straight, thus minimizing neck and shoulder pain.

5. Remember that you’re not chained to your desk

Of all the ergonomic advice offered above, this seems likeliest to remain evergreen.

Take a snack break, a water break, a bathroom break, and while you’re at it toss in a couple of the stretches Cinkay recommends.

(The Mayo Clinic has more, including our favorite shoulder stretch.)

Zhang’s desk-centric video was uploaded in 2017, when keyboard trays were already becoming a relic of a bygone era. 

As mentioned, he’s anti-wrist rest. If your wrists are in need of support, and they are, get a palm rest!

Zhang’s also critical of drawers and – unusual for 2017 – standing desks though like Cirkay, he’s a big fan of standing up and moving around.

His video description includes some common sense, ass-covering encouragement for viewers with irregular symptoms or pain to seek professional help. We think this means medical professional, though unsurprisingly, ergonomic assessment is a fast growing field. It’s expensive but possibly costs less in the long run than rushing out to buy whatever a stranger on the internet tells you to.

To that end, we appreciate Zhang’s transparency regarding his channel’s participation in the Amazon Services LLC Associates affiliate advertising program.

Caveat emptor!

Related Content 

Why Sitting Is The New Smoking: An Animated Explanation

Who Wrote at Standing Desks? Kierkegaard, Dickens and Ernest Hemingway Too

Behold the Elaborate Writing Desks of 18th Century Aristocrats

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

What Did People Do Before the Invention of Eyeglasses?

You remember it — one of the most heartbreaking scenes on TV. A man longs for nothing more than time to read, to be free of all those people Sartre told us make our hells. Finally granted his wish by the H-Bomb, he then accidentally break his glasses, rendering himself unable make out a word. Oh, cruel irony! Not an optometrist or optician in sight! Surely, there are “Time Enough at Last” jokes at eye care conventions worldwide.

Morality tales wrapped in science fiction might make us think about all sorts of things, but one of the most obvious questions when we witness the fate of Mr. Henry Bemis, “charter member in the fraternity of dreamers,” might be, but what did people do before corrective lenses? Were millions forced to accept his fate, living out their lives with farsightedness, nearsightedness, and other defects that impede vision? How did early humans survive in times much less hospitable to disabilities? At least there were others to read and describe things for them….


In truth, the Twilight Zone is not far off the mark. Or at least nearsightedness and reading are closely linked. “As long as primates have been around, there’s probably been myopia,” says professor of ophthalmology Ivan Schwab. But Schwab argues in his book Evolution’s Witness: How Eyes Evolved that the rise of reading likely caused skyrocketing rates of myopia over the past three hundred years. “Though genes and nutrition may play a role in nearsightedness,” Natalie Jacewicz writes at NPR, “[Schwab] says education and myopia seem to be linked, suggesting that when people do a lot of close work, their eyes grow longer.”

As the History Dose video above explains, the oldest image of a pair of glasses dates from a 1351 painting of Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher. The painting is an anachronism — spectacles, the narrator tells us, were invented 23 years earlier in Pisa, after the cardinal’s death. They “gradually spread across Europe and travelled the Silk Road to China.” (The oldest surviving pair of glasses dates from around 1475). So what happened before 1286? As you’ll learn, glasses were not the only way to enlarge small items. In fact, humans have been using some form of magnifying lens to read small print (or manuscript or cuneiform or what-have-you) for thousands of years. Those lenses, however, corrected presbyopia, or far-sightedness.

Those with myopia were mostly out of luck until the invention of sophisticated lens-grinding techniques and improved vision tests. But for most of human history, unless you were a sailor or a soldier, you “likely spent your day as an artisan, smith, or farm worker,” occupations where distance vision didn’t matter as much. In fact, artisans like medieval scribes and illuminators, says Neil Handley — museum curator of the College of Optometrists, London — were “actually encouraged to remain in their myopic condition, because it was actually ideal for them doing this job.”

It wasn’t until well after the time of Gutenberg that wearing lenses on one’s face became a thing — and hardly a popular thing at first. Early glasses were held up to the eyes, not worn. They were heavy, thick, and fragile. In the 15th century, “because… they were unusual and rare,” says Handley, “they were seen as having magical powers” and their wearers viewed as “in league with the devil, immoral.” That stigma went away, even if glasses picked up other associations that sometimes made their users the subject of taunts. But by the nineteenth century, glasses were common around the world.

Given that we all spend most of our time interacting with small text and images on handheld screens, it seems maybe they haven’t spread widely enough. “More than a billion, and maybe as many as 2.5 billion, people in the world need but don’t have glasses to correct for various vision impairments,” notes Livescience, citing figures from The New York Times. For many people, especially in the developing world, the question of how to get by in the world without eyeglasses is still a very pressing, present-day issue.

Related Content:

The World’s Oldest Surviving Pair of Glasses (Circa 1475)

James Joyce, With His Eyesight Failing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

Oliver Sacks Explains the Biology of Hallucinations: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Japanese Researcher Sleeps in the Same Location as Her Cat for 24 Consecutive Nights!


Cross cat napping with bed hopping and you might end up having an “adventure in comfort” similar to the one that informs student Yuri Nakahashi‘s thesis for Tokyo’s Hosei University.

For 24 consecutive nights, Nakahashi forwent the comforts of her own bed in favor of a green sleeping bag, unfurled in whatever random location one of her five pet cats had chosen as its sleeping spot that evening.

(The choice of which cat would get the pleasure of dictating each night’s sleeping bag coordinates was also randomized.)

As the owner of five cats, Nakahashi presumably knew what she was signing up for…

 

Cats rack out atop sofa backs, on stairs, and under beds…and so did Nakahashi.

Her photos suggest she logged a lot of time on a bare wooden floor.

A FitBit monitored the duration and quality of time spent asleep, as well as the frequency with which she awakened during the night.

She documented the physical and psychological effects of this experiment in an interactive published by the Information Processing Society of Japan.


She reports that she eagerly awaited the revelation of each night’s coordinates, and that even when her sleep was disrupted by her pets’ middle of the night grooming routines, bunking next to them had a “relaxing effect.”

Meanwhile, our research suggests that the same experiment would awaken a vastly different response in a different human subject, one suffering from ailurophobia, say, or severe allergies to the proteins in feline saliva, urine, and dander.

What’s really surprising about Nakahashi’s itinerant, and apparently pleasure-filled undertaking is how little difference there is between her average sleep score during the experiment and her average sleep score from the 20 days preceding it.

At left, an average sleep score of 84.2 for the 20 days leading up to experiment. At right, an average sleep score 83.7 during the experiment.

Nakahashi’s entry for the YouFab Global Creative Awards, a prize for “work that attempts a dialogue that transcends the boundaries of species, space, and time” reflects the playful spirit she brought to her slightly off-kilter experiment:

 Is it possible to add diversity to the way we enjoy sleep? Let’s think about food. In addition to the taste and nutrition of the food, each meal is a special experience with diversity depending on the people you are eating with, the atmosphere of the restaurant, the weather, and many other factors. In order to bring this kind of enjoyment to sleep, we propose an “adventure in comfort” in which the cat decides where to sleep each night, away from the fixed bedroom and bed. This project is similar to going out to eat with a good friend at a restaurant, where the cat guides you to sleep.

She notes that traditional beds have an immobility owing to “their physical weight and cultural concepts such as direction.”

This suggests that her work could be of some benefit to humans in decidedly less fanciful, involuntary situations, whose lack of housing leads them to sleep in unpredictable, and inhospitable locations.

Nakahashi’s time in the green sleeping bag inspired her to create the below model of a more flexible bed, using a polypropylene bag, rice and nylon film.

We have created a prototype of a double-layered inflatable bed that has a pouch structure that inflates with air and a jamming structure that becomes hard when air is compressed. The pouch side softly receives the body when inflated. The jamming side becomes hard when the air is removed, and can be firmly fixed in an even space. The air is designed to move back and forth between the two layers, so that when not in use, the whole thing can be rolled up softly for storage. 

It’s hard to imagine the presence of a pussycat doing much to ameliorate the anxiety of those forced to flee their familiar beds with little warning, but we can see how Nakahashi’s design might bring a degree of physical relief when sleeping in subway stations, basement corners, and other harrowing locations.

Via Spoon & Tomago

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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The New Herbal: A Masterpiece of Renaissance Botanical Illustrations Gets Republished in a Beautiful 900-Page Book by Taschen

We’ve all have heard of the fuchsia, a flower (or genus of flowering plant) native to Central and South America but now grown far and wide. Though even the least botanically literate among us know it, we may have occasional trouble spelling its name. The key is to remember who the fuchsia was named for: Leonhart Fuchs, a German physician and botanist of the sixteenth century. More than 450 years after his death, Fuchs is remembered as not just the namesake of a flower, but as the author of an enormous book detailing the varieties of plants and their medicinal uses. His was a landmark achievement in the form known as the herbal, examples of which we’ve featured here on Open Culture from ninth- and eighteenth-century England.

But De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes, as this work was known upon its initial 1542 publication in Latin, has worn uncommonly well through the ages. Or rather, Fuchs’ personal, hand-colored original has, coming down to us in 2022 as the source for Taschen’s The New Herbal. “A masterpiece of Renaissance botany and publishing,” according to the publisher, the book includes “over 500 illustrations, including the first visual record of New World plant types such as maize, cactus, and tobacco.”


Buyers also have their choice of English, German, and French editions, each with its own translations of Fuchs’ “essays describing the plants’ features, origins, and medicinal powers.” (You can also read a Dutch version of the original online at Utrecht University Library Special Collections.)

Naturally, some of the information contained in these nearly five-century-old scientific writings will be a bit dated at this point, but the appeal of the illustrations has never dimmed. “Fuchs presented each plant with meticulous woodcut illustrations, refining the ability for swift species identification and setting new standards for accuracy and quality in botanical publications.” Over 500 of them go into the book: “Weighing more than 10 pounds,” writes Colossal’s Grace Ebert, “the nearly 900-page volume is an ode to Fuchs’ research and the field of Renaissance botany, detailing plants like the leafy garden balsam and root-covered mandrake.”

Taschen’s reproductions of these works of botanical art look to do justice to Leonhart Fuchs’ legacy, especially in the brilliance of their colors. It’s enough to reinforce the assumption that the man has received tribute not just through fuchsia the flower but fuchsia the color as well. But such a dual connection turns out to be in doubt: the color’s name derives from rosaniline hydrochloride, also known as fuchsine, originally a trade name applied by its manufacturer Renard frères et Franc. The name fuschine, in turn, derives from fuchs, the German translation of renard. The New Herbal is, of course, a work of botany rather than linguistics, but it should nevertheless stimulate in its beholders an awareness of the interconnection of knowledge that fired up the Renaissance mind.

via Colossal

Related content:

Two Million Wondrous Nature Illustrations Put Online by The Biodiversity Heritage Library

Discover Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Beautiful Digital Edition of the Poet’s Collection of Pressed Plants & Flowers Is Now Online

A Beautiful 1897 Illustrated Book Shows How Flowers Become Art Nouveau Designs

Historic Manuscript Filled with Beautiful Illustrations of Cuban Flowers & Plants Is Now Online (1826)

A Curious Herbal: 500 Beautiful Illustrations of Medicinal Plants Drawn by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1737 (to Save Her Family from Financial Ruin)

1,000-Year-Old Illustrated Guide to the Medicinal Use of Plants Now Digitized & Put Online

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Space Sex is Serious Business: A Hilarious Short Animation Addresses Serious Questions About Human Reproduction in Space

Back in the late 80s, there was a rumor floating around that Earth Girls Are Easy.

40 some years of scientific and social advancement have shifted the conversational focus.

We’re just now beginning to understand that Space Sex is Serious Business.

Particularly if SpaceX CEO Elon Musk achieves his goal of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars.

Surely at some point in their long travels to and residence on Mars, those pioneers would get down to business in much the same way that rats, fruit flies, parasitic wasps, and Japanese rice fish have while under observation on prior space expeditions.


Meanwhile, we’re seriously lacking in human data.

A pair of human astronauts, Jan Davis and Mark Lee, made history in 1992 as the first married couple to enter space together, but NASA insisted their relations remained strictly professional for the duration, and that a shuttle’s crew compartment is too small for the sort of antics a nasty-minded public kept asking about.

In an interview with Mens Health, Colonel Mike Mullane, a veteran of three space missions, confirmed that a spacecraft’s layout doesn’t favor romance:

The only privacy would have been in the air lock, but everybody would know what you were doing. You’re not out there doing a spacewalk. There’s no reason to be in there.

Shortly after Davis and Lee returned to earth, NASA formalized an unspoken rule prohibiting husbands and wives from venturing into space together. It did little to squelch public interest in space sex.

One wonders if NASA’s rule has been rewritten in accordance with the times. Air lock aside, might same sex couples remain free to swing what hetero-normative marrieds (arguably) cannot?

This is but one of hundreds of space sex questions begging further consideration.

Some of the most serious are raised in Tom McCarten’s witty collage animation for FiveThirtyEight, above.

Namely how damaging will cosmic radiation and microgravity prove to human reproduction? As more humans toy with the possibility of leaving Earth, this question feels less and less hypothetical.

Maggie KoerthBaker, who researched and narrates the animated short, notes that Musk portrayed the risks of radiation as minor during a presentation at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, and breathed not a peep as to the effects of microgravity.

Yet scientific studies of non-human space travelers document a host of reproductive issues including lowered libido, atypical hormone levels, ovulatory dysfunction, miscarriages, and fetal mutations.

On its webpage, NASA provides some information about the Reproduction, Development, and Sex Differences Laboratory of its Space Biosciences Research Branch, but remains mum on topics of pressing concern to, say, students in a typical middle school sex ed class.

Like achieving and maintaining erections in microgravity.

In Physiology News Magazine, Dr. Adam Watkins, associate professor of Reproductive and Developmental Physiology at the University of Nottingham, suggests that internal and external atmospheric changes would make such things, pardon the pun, hard:

Firstly, just staying in close contact with each other under zero gravity is hard. Secondly, as astronauts experience lower blood pressure while in space, maintaining erections and arousal are more problematic than here on Earth. 

The exceptionally forthright Col Mullane has some contradictory first hand experience that should come as a relief to all humankind:

A couple of times, I would wake up from sleep periods and I had a boner that I could have drilled through kryptonite.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

1,100 Delicate Drawings of Root Systems Reveals the Hidden World of Plants

We know that plants can inspire art. If you, personally, still require convincing on that point, just have a look at Elizabeth Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, the drawings of Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, and Nancy Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft’s Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba — not to mention the paintings of Georgia O’ Keeffe — all previously featured here on Open Culture. But those works concern themselves only with plant life as it exists above ground.

What goes on down below, underneath the soil? That you can see for yourself — and without having to pull up one of our fine flowering (or non-flowering) friends to do so — at Wageningen University’s online archive of root system drawings. “The outcome of 40 years of  root system excavations in Europe,” says that site, the collection contains 1,180 diagrams of species from Abies alba (best known today as a kind of Christmas tree) to Zygophyllum xanthoxylon (a faintly scrubby-looking native of the arid and semi-arid regions of continents like Africa and Australia).

The site explains that “the drawings, their analysis and description were done by Univ. Prof. Dr. Erwin Lichtenegger (1928-2004) and Univ. Prof. Dr. Lore Kutschera (1917-2008), leader of Pflanzensoziologisches Institut, Klagenfurt, (now in Bad Goisern, Austria).”


Over the course of 40 years, writes The Washington Post‘s Erin Blakemore, Lichtenegger and Kustchera “collaborated on an enormous ‘root atlas’ that maps the underground trajectories of common European plants.” Created through “a laborious system of digging up and documenting the intricate systems,” these drawings are “also art in their own right, honoring the beauty of a part of plants most never give that much thought.”

Even the least botanically aware among us knows that plants have roots, but how many of us are aware of the scale and complexity those roots can attain? “Root systems allow plants to gather the water and minerals they use to grow,” writes Blakemore. “As the root system grows, it creates more and more pathways that allow water to get into the deep subsoil, and fostering the growth of microbes that benefit other life. Strong root systems can prevent erosion, protecting the land on which they grow. And the structures allow the soil to capture carbon.” Thus root systems, never a particular locus of coolness, have the distinction of doing their part to fight climate change. And thanks to Lichtenegger and Kustchera’s drawings, they underscore the capacity of art to reveal worlds hidden to most of us. View all of the images here.

via Colossal

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Historic Manuscript Filled with Beautiful Illustrations of Cuban Flowers & Plants Is Now Online (1826)

Ernst Haeckel’s Sublime Drawings of Flora and Fauna: The Beautiful Scientific Drawings That Influenced Europe’s Art Nouveau Movement (1889)

A Curious Herbal: 500 Beautiful Illustrations of Medicinal Plants Drawn by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1737 (to Save Her Family from Financial Ruin)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

People in the Middle Ages Slept Not Once But Twice Each Night: How This Lost Practice Was Rediscovered

The importance of a good night’s sleep has been featured now and again here on Open Culture. But were a medieval European to visit our time, he’d probably ask — among other questions — if we didn’t mean a good night’s sleeps, plural. The evidence suggests that the people of the Middle Ages slept not straight through the night but in two distinct stretches. This practice has come back to light in recent years thanks to the research of historian Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. “Both phases of sleep lasted roughly the same length of time,” he writes in that book, “with individuals waking sometime after midnight before returning to rest.”

But “not everyone, of course, slept according to the same timetable. The later at night that persons went to bed, the later they stirred after their initial sleep; or, if they retired past midnight, they might not awaken at all until dawn. Thus, in ‘The Squire’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales, Canacee slept ‘soon after evening fell’ and subsequently awakened in the early morning following ‘her first sleep’; in turn, her companions, staying up much later, ‘lay asleep till it was fully prime’ (daylight).” Proof widespread “biphasic sleep” exists not just in Chaucer, but — for those who know where to look — all over the surviving documents from medieval Europe.


“In France, the initial sleep was the premier somme,” writes BBC.com’s Zaria Gorvett. “In Italy, it was primo sonno. In fact, Eckirch found evidence of the habit in locations as distant as Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, South America and the Middle East”; the earliest reference he turned up comes from Homer’s Odyssey. Whatever their era of history, biphasic sleepers seem to have made good use of their intervals of wakefulness, known in English as “the watch.” During it, peasants worked, Christians prayed, and thieves thieved, “but most of all, the watch was useful for socializing – and for sex.” After a long day’s work, “the first sleep took the edge off their exhaustion and the period afterwards was thought to be an excellent time to conceive copious numbers of children.”

Biphasic sleep and its attendant habits didn’t survive the 19th century. The reasons, as Ekirch explains in the interview above, have to do with the Industrial Revolution, that great disruption of traditions followed since time immemorial. Along with “the increasing prevalence of artificial illumination both within homes and outside,” he says, “bedtimes were pushed back, even though people still awakened at the same time in the morning.” Apart from introducing new technologies, the Industrial Revolution “also changed peoples’ attitudes toward work,” making humanity “increasingly time-conscious: productivity, efficiency were the hallmarks of the 19th century.” We continue to set store by them today, though we also handle the disruption of sleep in our own, distinctively 21st-century ways. Would anyone care to explain to our medieval time-traveler the practice of midnight Twitter-scrolling?

via BBC/Medievalists

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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