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November 09, 2016
WHAT COMES TO MIND when you envision getting that ideal “good night’s sleep?” In your mind’s eye, you probably see yourself sinking into a plush mattress and plump pillows in a dark, cool room. Perhaps there’s just a hint of breeze from a nearby window as you close your eyes for eight — or more! — uninterrupted hours of shut-eye.
If this is your idea of a good night’s sleep, you probably grew up somewhere in North America or Europe. It turns out that how, where and when people catch their Z’s depends a lot on culture and location, and what passes for quality rest here is very different in other parts of the world.
You might feel like your whole night is ruined if you wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back to sleep. In many parts of the world, though, it’s completely acceptable and expected to sleep for a few hours, be awake for a time, and then go back to a deep sleep.
This is sleeping habit is called biphasal sleep, and scientists are pretty sure it’s actually more natural — no one expected to push all their sleep time together into one eight-hour chunk until the Industrial Revolution pulled people out of the countryside and into the factories. Biphasal sleep is common in places without electricity, since people’s sleep patterns follow the sun instead.
Everyone wants a comfortable bed, but just how soft it should be depends on where you live. While Westerners prefer plump mattresses and beds raised well off of the ground, roll-away mats or futons are more common in Asia. Since these are placed directly onto the ground, it’s a much firmer foundation.
In Mexico and South America, on the other hand, hammocks are common space-savers that are only hung up at night for sleeping and tucked away during the day. These woven nets keep sleepers cool and provide a gentle, rocking motion.
In parts of Africa and other tropical climates, sleeping under netting is crucial to avoid harmful insect bites.
While work schedules in most of Europe and North America don’t allow for naps, there are places in the world where they are common. Spain, for example, has raised the siesta to an art form, and the whole country stops to allow people to go home for a midday meal and nap. This in turn, gives them the energy to stay up past midnight every night.
The siesta is also common throughout Central and South America, where avoiding the midday heat makes good sense. In Japan, where people get less sleep than anywhere else in the world, a short power nap (or inemuri) helps people get through the work day and stay highly productive. Naps are also common in regions of China and Africa, though they tend to disappear from cultures as the regions become more industrialized.
The next time you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, consider that you’re in good company. Somewhere in the world, a nomad is also awake and happily studying the stars for a an hour or two before falling back to sleep on a bed of grass.
As different cultures around the world demonstrate, there’s no one right way to get a healthy, restful night’s sleep — whatever feels right to you is probably perfectly normal somewhere on the planet.