‘Giant sleep machines’ and the brain

I stumbled across this article in the Discover website, entitled How To Sleep Like a Hunter-Gatherer. Quite a bit of the piece is clearly based on a discussion with anthropologist Carol Worthman, director of the Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology at Emory University. The article basically considers some of the variation in human sleep patterns, pointing out how rare and extreme American sleeping behaviors are, especially the extreme quiet, isolation, and uninterrupted, single-shot way that we get out eight hours.

I’m struck by this for a number of reasons; Worthman points out how sleep patterns would be different for people living communally, for foraging groups living in less isolation from the environment, and for folks living in very loud cities (she draws on Cairo, where people also sleep twice during the day and often share sleeping space with other people). The implications are intriguing, as my former colleague Jim McKenna has pointed out in his discussions of co-sleeping.

But I’m also struck by the possibility that the ‘American’ pattern she describes (which is likely also restricted — for example, what about those working night shifts…), might fundamentally affect patterns of alertness, body metabolism, memory, ability to maintain attention, and a host of other factors.

Moving to the country has made me more aware of this because I sleep much less than my wife, and I tend not to be ready to go to sleep when she’s nodding off on the couch after dinner. At night, when everyone else is asleep and I’m working, doing dishes, or writing blog posts, the noise is extraordinary. Between crickets and frogs, the noise level is constantly equivalent to a party on the neighbors’ farm. It’s taken some getting used to. I haven’t yet noticed a change in my sleep patterns, but I suspect that the variation Worthman describes likely has significant affects on the human brain. It’s one of those mechanisms that I’m interested in: it’s ‘cultural’ in the sense that it’s socially-based variation, but it’s largely not conscious, non-semantic, and behavioral, something that most current theories of culture don’t handle very well. Anyway, I don’t have much intelligent to say about the piece — maybe I will after I get some sleep. (I know, that was cheap, but I do want to go to bed, and it’s all I’ve got.)

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States, and look forward to a new project in New Zealand. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-edited several books, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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