It appears that chronic fatigue, insomnia, and other sleep-related issues have become common in our society; in fact, these problems have come to define modern existence — one would be hard-pressed to meet anyone who doesn’t complain frequently about being tired or sleepy.
From what I’ve read, this reflects the little-known fact that our modern sleep structure is an unnatural and radical departure from any other point in history. Humans across nearly every culture and civilization have always slept in irregular patterns, with multiple naps throughout the day and night. An interesting article in Discover Magazine explores this issue in-depth:
When I flew down to Atlanta to interview Carol Worthman, the director of the Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology at Emory University, she greeted me in her office, among the stacks of research monographs and the photos of her with beaming tribal groups from several continents. I asked why she had first thought to study sleep, and she smiled. “It was a true ‘aha’ experience. I was sitting in my office when a friend of mine who was studying mood disorders called me up and asked me what anthropologists knew about sleep.”
She laughed and paused for a moment of dramatic emphasis. “Nothing!” She widened her eyes behind the thick lenses. “We know nothing about sleep! I think of all the places I’ve slept around the world, all the groups I’ve studied. . . . I mean, here I was, part of this discipline dedicated to the study of human behavior and human diversity, and yet we knew next to nothing about a behavior that claimed one-third of our lives. I was stunned.”
So Worthman began to comb the literature, interviewing ethnographers, sifting through fifty-odd years of published work. What she found, she said, shouldn’t have surprised her: “The ecology of sleep is like the ecology of everyday life.” Sleep, it seems, comes in many cultural flavors.
It seems that we take that last part for granted — most people don’t really think of sleep as something that’s relative in the same way that other activities or traditions are. It’s kind of assumed that everyone more or less sleeps the same way — the standard 8 to 9 hour nightly bloc that we grow up believing to be the “right” way.
It’s also interesting to note how little we actually know about this very important behavior. There are no formal sleep professionals, and scarcely any institutions specializing in sleep studies. I suppose sleep was alway something we simply did perfunctorily, without any thought to requiring further understanding. Of course, I’d imagine this will start to change quickly as sleep problems persist across the modernizing world.
Anyway, more on this interesting research:
Worthman flipped open a book and showed me photographs of big families piled into large, sprawling huts, little kids peeking up from the arms of Mom, older generations wrapped leisurely around the fireplace. “Forager groups are a good place to start, because for much of human history we’ve been occupied with their mode of existence,” she said. “There are the !Kung of Botswana and the Efe of Zaire. For both of these groups, sleep is a very fluid state. They sleep when they feel like it—during the day, in the evening, in the dead of night.”
This, said Worthman, is true of other groups too—the Aché of Paraguay, for example. Late-night sleep, when it happens, is practically a social activity. In addition to procreation, the night is a time of “ritual, sociality, and information exchange.” People crash together in big multigenerational heaps—women with infants, wheezing seniors, domestic animals, chatting hunter buddies stoking the fire—everyone embedded in one big, dynamic, “sensorily rich environment.” This kind of environment is important, said Worthman, because “it provides you with subliminal cues about what is going on, that you are not alone, that you are safe in the social world.”
The more Worthman learned about the communal and interactive nature of non-Western sleep, the more she came to see Western sleep as the strange exception. She laughed again. “It’s funny, because as an anthropologist I’m used to getting weirded out a bit—I mean, you wouldn’t believe the things people do. So after collecting all this material I look at my own bed and go, ‘This is really weird.’”
Western sleep, said Worthman, is arid and controlled, with a heavy emphasis on individualism and the “decontextualized person.” Contact is kept to a minimum. The apparent conflict with marriage co-sleeping norms, she notes elsewhere, “has been partially mitigated for Americans by the evolution of bed size from twin, to double, to queen, to king.” She lifted her thin arms and drew a big box in the air. “I mean, think about it—this thing, this bed, is really a gigantic sleep machine. You’ve got a steel frame that comes up from the floor, a bottom mattress that looks totally machine-like, then all these heavily padded surfaces—blankets and pillows and sheets.”
It’s true. Most of us sleep alone in the dark, floating three feet off the ground but also buried under five layers of bedding. I had the sudden image of an armada of solitary humanoids in their big puffy spaceships drifting slowly through the silent and airless immensity of space. “Whoa,” I said.
Again, I never thought to question neither the sleeping bloc method nor the idea of sleeping in isolated conditions. I imagine that both these developments reflect wider trends in our society — the mechanization and patternization of everything from work and school hours, to our own personal activities; the growing desire for personal space and minimal human contact; and constant consciousness about time. These are how modern societies are structured, and why few developed nations sleep the way hunter-gatherers once did (save for some Romance countries that retain the practice of the siesta, or afternoon nap).
By contrast, village life is one big, messy block party, crackling with sex, intrigue, and poultry. In these cultures, interrupted or polyphasic sleep is the norm, which jibes with findings about still other cultures, like the Temiars of Indonesia and the Ibans of Sarawak, 25 percent of whom are apparently active at any one point in the night.
Even more intriguing are some of the culturally specific practices around sleep. Worthman flipped to a sequence of photos showing a tribe of bare-chested Indonesians gathered in a big circle. “These are the Balinese, and this is an example of something called ‘fear sleep’ or ‘todoet poeles.’ See these two guys?” She pointed to the first picture, where two men cowered on the sand in the center of the group. “They just got caught stealing from the village kitty, and they’ve been hauled out for trial.” The villagers all had angry faces and open mouths. The two men looked terrified.
“You can see the progression. He’s starting to sag”—in the next photo one of the thieves had his eyes closed and had begun to lean over—“and here in the last photo you can see he’s totally asleep.” The same thief was now slumped and insentient, snoozing happily amid the furious village thrum. “Isn’t that amazing?” Worthman shook her head. “In stressful situations they can fall instantly into a deep sleep. It’s a cultural acquisition.”
Yet for many people, myself included, the slightest mental or physical disturbance interferes with one’s ability to sleep. As instances of anxiety, depression, and stress continue to increase across the nation (due in no small part to economic malaise), so too does sleeplessness — which in turn triggers more psychological distress and perpetuates a positive feedback loop of mental illness and chronic fatigue. This doesn’t bode well for the social and economic health of our nation — a society made up of sleepless, tired, and frustrated people is bound to have many more problems ahead.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We moved out of her office and made our way down to the laboratory, where Worthman pulled out a big cardboard box. “We wanted to look at sleep in non-Western cultures firsthand, so we decided to initiate a study.” She opened the box. “We went to Egypt, because, well, hunter-gatherer types are interesting, but they’re not really relevant now. Cairo is an old civilization in a modern urban environment. We wanted to look at a pattern that everyone knows is historic in the Mediterranean area. They sleep more than once a day—at night and the midafternoon.”
I nodded. Of course, the siesta—or Ta’assila, as it’s known colloquially in Egypt. Worthman reached into the box and lifted out a set of black paisley headbands, all of them threaded with thin wires and dangling sensors. “So we studied six households in Cairo, and we made everyone wear one of these headbands at all times. One of these little sensors is a motion detector, the other is a diode that glues onto the upper eyelid in order to detect whether or not you’re in REM sleep.”
Thus outfitted, the families went about their daily business, supplying a steady stream of information for the visiting anthropologists. What they found was that Egyptians on average get the same eight hours that we do, they just get it by different means: about six hours at night and two in the afternoon. They also sleep in radically different sleep environments—rarely alone, almost always with one or more family members, in rooms with windows open to the roar of outside street traffic.
“Listen to this.” She pressed play on a tape recorder and the sound of traffic blared out of the little speakers. She raised her voice to yell: “I mean, I’m a pretty sound sleeper, but I couldn’t sleep in Cairo. It was too noisy!” I yelled back, “I see what you mean!” It sounded like 200 years of industrial noise pollution pressed into a single recording. She slid me a photo of a Cairo street, a narrow alley crisscrossed with laundry and jam-packed with donkey carts, trucks, cars, camels, and buses. “Every imaginable form of human transport, right below your window!” She hit stop and the room went quiet. “Despite all this ambient noise, Cairoans don’t seem to have any trouble falling asleep.”
So the idea of sleeping in one solid nightly bloc is a recent invention that emerged largely in the industrial era (as discussed in my previous post on the subject). Our schools, businesses, and institutions are operating in a manner detrimental to sleeping well and functioning optimally. Furthermore, we’ve conditioned ourselves into requiring the utmost silence and comfort — both mentally and externally — in order to rest well, which has made the issue of fatigue even more difficult to address. But here’s the upshot
For Worthman, the conclusion was obvious. All these different sleep patterns suggested that the regulatory processes governing “sleep-wake transitions” could be shaped by cultural conditions. Sleep, it seemed, was putty—some cultures stretched it out, some chopped it up, and others, like our own, squeezed it into one big lump.
So there may be hope for us yet. Maybe it’s simply a matter of time before we adjust to this method. After all, not everyone in the Western World has issues sleeping. But with all this emphasis on economic growth and productivity — which in our minds entails more hard working, longer hours, and less idleness — will we ever consider adopting a more flexible sleep pattern? It’s interesting to note that many of the nations that have retained old modes of sleeping are characterized as backwards, lazy, or underdeveloped — despite their often better quality of life. Will we thus require a fundamental change in our cultural attitudes towards work and free time before we can give our minds and bodies a rest?
As always, please discuss.