Sleep culture in the West, and elsewhere


Science journalist Jessa Gamble has a new book coming out that's going to be about the cultural differences that determine how humans perceive time. Awesome! In a post at the Last Word on Nothing blog, Gamble talks about how these differences affect the way we sleep.

Perhaps you'd prefer somewhere with a concept of time that fits human activities, rather than a soulless number on a digital clock. In Sudan, the Nuer people are cow herds and tell the time according to the day's work schedule. The clock might read milking time, pasturing time or cattle-moving time. According to anthropologist Wade Davis, Borneo's Penan people measure time using subjective perception. If a hunting trip reaped a lot of meat, it's understood to have taken a shorter time, even though it could have lasted several days.

I also assume you'd like to be somewhere you can consistently enjoy a good night's rest. Cultural conceptions of a good night's rest are wildly variable. For example, my earliest immersion in a non-Western culture was as part of Canada World Youth, a program that pairs a group of Canadian teens with, in our case, an Egyptian counterpart. Beyond the obvious mismatch between Canadian teen culture and the priorities of Islam, there were countless small divergences. For the Canadians, a common theme, unexpectedly, was the sanctity of sleep. Once asleep, a North American adult is likely to be, if not tiptoed around, at least left undisturbed unless there is some type of emergency. In contrast, if I retired at 10 in Egypt, I might be woken at midnight by someone asking where I put the spatula. I started to wonder why I had ever thought sleep was a state deserving of respect. Perhaps it is only when a society becomes chronically sleep-deprived that hours of it are horded and jealously guarded from disruption.

This bears out in the research. Solitary sleep on a softly cushioned surface, between four walls and under a roof--it's hardly typical. Anthropologist Carol Worthman has spent many years in the field studying nighttime in traditional societies. In contrast with the Western sleep model--a regular bedtime followed by continuous sleep until morning--the Eje of Congo have some level of social activity persisting through all hours. The sleeping area of a family will see coming and going as some members retire, grooming each other for parasites that might disturb their sleep, and others hear the familiar strains of a thumb piano and get up to dance.

Via Ed Yong

Image: Sleeping with Bo, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from joi's photostream


  1. There’s good evidence that the most part of sleep is dream sleep, and you can’t make up an interrupted dream. It also takes a long time to get back into that state. Little bursts of interrupted sleep do you no good, physiologically.

    I suspect that most cultures afford some respect to sleepers in observation of this biological imperative to sleep uninterrupted, and I feel that a culture that does not is dysfunctional.

    1. I know in university we always let sleepers move from one session to the next, often with the help of hastily-crafted “Do Not Disturb” signs planted around their seats in lecture halls.

      Perhaps my class-mates were not so dysfunctional as I had previously assumed.

    2. I often wake from a dream in the morning, roll over, and dive right back into that dream. In fact, I do that every single morning of my life.

      I dream copiously, vividly, and wildly for what seems like eons every night/morning.

      I also need between nine and 10 hours of sleep every night to feel really good.

      More often than not, however, I’ll get a few nights of seven hours and make up for it with a marathon night or two of 12-hour sleep cycles.

      1. Oh, wow, do I miss Olympic sleeping!

        Alas, have a kid and your ability/time availability will force you into retirement from the sport.

      2. We have almost the exact same sleeping habits. Everything exactly the same except: the nights where I get 12 hour cycles have been reduced since moving in with my significant other. I pray for you your SO doesn’t ruin your dreamstates.

      3. Oh wow. I sleep much like this. Only I often get less sleep on days in between. Unfortunately because I have nightmares a lot this means I can get trapped in a nightmare. Waking up and then plunging back into it until the two realities get confused and I have a mega-nightmare.

        I wake quickly and well, and have no trouble falling back to sleep in general. One could ask me where a spatula is, I could tell you, even get up and give the spatula to you, and then go back to sleep with no real recollection of having woken up.

        However some times I just *can not* sleep at all. I can not pull all nighters and function at all. So it sucks.

        During the day I can fall asleep very easily. Almost anywhere. Some times I take a nap for lunch. This helps me A LOT.

  2. I suspect any place that was largely a agrarian community have a terrain feature or other that is named related to dinner. This to help know when it was time to head for home and eat when out in the field.

  3. @cory

    I agree with the dysfunctional diagnosis.

    It reminds me of the importance of uninterrupted time when eg programming
    and you’re in the flow, concentrating.
    Some salesdroid who comes along to schmooz can blow tens of minutes of thought.

    Although in preindustrial societies (no electricity, or at least no TV) one might have an abundance of time to rest, and the “spatula” interruption might be out of necessity with the understanding that the sleeper has 10 more hours available.
    You might also be quite beat from 12 hours of farm labor.

    Sleep is *the most important* thing for a functioning brain, many drug (eg ethanol) side effects are from disturbing sleep.
    Chronically underslept americans do not surprise me given their behaviors..

    Nuer people are NOT cow herds :-)

  4. It is possible to train your body to enter REM sleep much more rapidly than usual. Look up Leonardo Da Vinci’s sleep habits. He slept in short bursts every few hours.
    Is it possible that the Western style of long uninterrupted sleep has caused our delayed entry into REM sleep?

  5. Gamble’s likely source:
    Nuer Time-Reckoning
    E. E. Evans-Pritchard
    Africa: Journal of the International African Institute
    Vol. 12, No. 2 (Apr., 1939), pp. 189-216

  6. If I’m woken up all the way while fast asleep it can take me 1-2 hours to get back to sleep. If I’m surprised (thunder, eg) into waking, it can leave me with an adrenaline load that keeps me from getting back to sleep at all.

    I am normally the most gentle and hard-to-anger person you would ever want to meet… except when woken up abruptly. That adrenaline thing just makes me feel ANGRY. I calm down pretty quickly, but for the first 30 seconds, wow… Hulk pissy.

  7. People who misplace spatulas should be woken up. Especially if they’re rich Canucks.

  8. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, I can strongly recommend A. Roger Ekirch’s “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past.” It was a real eye-opener (pun intended, sorry) on how much our sleep habits have changed since the advent of artificial lighting, and how differently people from other cultures view what is an appropriate amount of sleep and when/how you do it.

  9. “Perhaps it is only when a society becomes chronically sleep-deprived that hours of it are _horded_…”

    Ok, so WoW players don’t get enough sleep is what you’re saying?

  10. Oh, well, there ya go. We should all give up our western ways and try to be more like the Congolese or the spatula-hunting Egyptians. That sounds great, only getting a couple hours of sleep per night while my family runs around plucking a blasted thumb piano and checking me for ticks. Yes, it seems so obvious now, this is what bedtime was missing.

  11. Sleep culture in the west:

    “I don’t need sleep, only 3-4 hours; ya lazy bastids…”

  12. Nobody has ever respected my right to undisturbed sleep. Or rather, they do consider it in the evening, but come morning and any class, meeting, or phone call becomes much more important, seeing as how every industrious person should be a morning person.

  13. For two years I drove an ambulance for the SFFD. The run volume was pretty heavy, and they were 24 hour shifts.

    During the day, work work work: no problem. But at night, one had to assume anywhere between 2-6 calls after midnight. To be tired and stressed and attempt to sleep, only to be woken by ALL the lights in the dormitory flashing on and a three tone alert ‘boop BOOP BEEEEEP’, followed by a voiceover imparting some information. . .well: it was effective, I’ll say that.

    That adrenaline rush from dead sleep can’t be good for the system…there have been times in my career where I have considered myself ‘somewhat to grossly’ overpaid,

    but those two years and the 18 months on Engine 3 in SF’s Tenderloin (25-30 calls daily average): well, I earned my daily bread then my friends…

    And yet, firehouse sleep is different: my dreams are way more vivid and exciting. Because the brain knows not to go full deep REM, gotta be ready to jump up at any time…or something like that. Some of my best and most memorable dreams happen at work, how cool is that?

    But, seems I got nothing on the Congo dancers and Egyptian spatula finders. Oh well.

  14. There would be no uncertainty for me where to put the spatula if someone woke me up in the middle of the night to ask about it ;)

  15. When I was on shift work I’d often seen Middle Eastern families(as this was the cultural makeup of the neighbourhood, Lebanese and Egyptian primarily) out grocery shopping very late at night at the 24h store. The WHOLE family, kids and all. I presume some parent or another had returned home from work and this was the time all the family was together. I asked one of the mothers about this and she confirmed the children get their homework done and go to sleep, and then are woken up when the father came home, stayed up for another two hours or so, even having a small snack sometimes, and were fine in the morning.

  16. For those interested more in cultural perceptions of time, I would also recommend Robert Levine’s “A Geography of Time”.

Comments are closed.