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