For reasons we still don’t fully understand, sleep is a universal, physiological need. However, comparing the sleep rituals and patterns of different cultures shows that there is more to sleep than just a physical necessity. Looking at how humans sleep, we must consider how our ancestors slept, how changes within our society affect sleep patterns, and how and why other cultures sleep differently. Learning about these things can help us to better understand sleep, and how we can further benefit from it.
Evolution of Sleep
From an evolutionary standpoint, humans had to adapt to the risky nature of needing sleep but also having to avoid predators in the darkness of night. Sleeping as a group provided safety, as someone could be woken up quickly in case of danger or distress. Many cultures, especially tribal cultures, foragers, herders and cultivators, continue to sleep in larger groups, providing warmth, comfort and security. In many of these communities, they sleep on hard surfaces or the floor in order to avoid pests and parasites, which can thrive in mattresses and pillows.
Before electricity, day and night were roughly the same amount of time (besides the extreme north and south), so humans slept in 2 phases with an interlude in between of a few hours of activity, and then slept for a second shorter period. The eight-hour block of uninterrupted sleep is a fairly recent phenomenon in Western culture; the biggest change in sleep patterns occurred when electric light was introduced. Light emanating from devices tricks our bodies and makes it harder to fall asleep.
Group and Co-Sleeping
Group sleeping or co-sleeping is practiced in almost all non-western societies. Night time is an important time of the day for social activities including gossip, stories and rituals. These social settings offer comfort and security, and help foster bonds within families and groups. Habitual co-sleepers experience better sleep quality when they co-sleep than when they sleep alone. This practice of sleeping means that it is common to be woken up often by noises, movement and disruptions, however it has been noted that upon being woken up, people in such cultures do not get upset, do not complain, and are not grumpy. This is in stark contrast to Western ways of sleeping: we have seemly ideal settings for sleep, yet become very frustrated and disturbed when they are not able to sleep soundly for the whole night. Our style of one long solitary period of sleep, sensory deprivation, with little to no intervals of wakefulness could actually have detrimental effects on our sleep-wake regulation systems and contribute to sleep problems and disorders.
The practice of co-sleeping means that children sleep in the same bed as their parents for their entire childhood. This practice helps foster a culture’s emphasis on interconnectedness and family solidarity. The practice of putting the kids to bed with the rituals of changing into their pyjamas, reading stories, stuffed animals/security objects and slowly preparing them for sleep by taking away sensory stimulation, is not practised in most of the world. Until recently, it was believed in western culture that co-sleeping was detrimental to children, however these views are now being questioned by evolutionary anthropologists, who point out that there are some benefits of co-sleeping; specifically between infants and mothers and the different sleep levels that result (as opposed to deeper sleep). Having an infant sleep with it’s mother provides the external regulation and support that babies rely on.
A study comparing sleep in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan found that those in the US and Japan sleep about 30 to 40 minutes less a night than other countries (every country slept less on work nights and longer on the weekends). This could be because of the fast paced, work-oriented culture that is prominent in both places. Work and productivity have taken precedence over sleep and rest. What is ironic is that these societies seem to be ignoring the connection between sleep and health and performance, which has resulted in the rise of sleep disorders and a global health problem.
The US and Japan have compensated by napping more than the other countries in the study. The Japanese often practice inemuri, which describes a daytime nap at work with the purpose of increasing productivity. These types of naps are out of necessity, because running on such little sleep disrupts functionality. Meanwhile, in co-sleeping, non-Western cultures, bed times are fluid, and though napping is common, it is part of the natural ebbs and flows of energy and sleep-cycles. The siesta – a daily nap – is a staple in Mediterranean cultures, especially Spain. The siesta occurs after lunch during the hottest time of the day. However because of Spanish cultural influence, it is also common in the cold Patagonian climate.
What can we learn from how other cultures sleep? Perhaps that we should listen to our bodies more when it comes to sleeping, instead of demanding ourselves to function on too-little sleep. We would achieve improved sleep by limiting artificial light before bed time to mimic the times before electricity. This lets your body naturally prepare for sleep. A light scent and fresh air make bedroom more comfortable. When it comes to parenting, it is worth learning about the pros, cons and risks of sleeping with babies and young children. The bonding that occurs during co-sleeping rituals is worth considering in order to strengthen emotional ties, and get a better, more natural sleep.