How we sleep | Inquirer Opinion
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How we sleep

/ 01:25 AM August 01, 2014

How do you define enough sleep?

I suspect many of you will say about seven or eight hours, starting at about 10 or 11 p.m., up to 6 or 7 a.m., with few (preferably) or no interruptions.


But such a pattern, and definition, are actually more Euro-American—a product of industrial society.  Even when I say “Euro-American,” there will be variations, with the southern European countries throwing in an afternoon siesta, which we’ve adopted.

As an anthropologist, I’ve been aware that many biological activities, notably eating, are shaped by culture.  But sleeping wasn’t in my consciousness as a biocultural activity until recently, when I almost accidentally stumbled on an entire issue of the journal Social Science and Medicine devoted to this theme of culture and sleeping. That special issue led me to other journal articles and books.


The research interest in culture and sleeping came about as a response to growing sleep-disorder problems in western countries. These problems were seen mainly from a medical lens, with the presumption that humans need, depending on their age and physical activity, a certain number of hours of sleep—and if you missed the optimum number of hours, you would be affected physically and emotionally.

Variations were recognized, but mainly as individual idiosyncrasies—that is, that some people “by nature” needed less sleep than others.

It took anthropologists, coming up with fieldwork observations on sleep, to remind us that the definitions of adequate and “good” sleep varied across cultures, and that this tied to the very concept of sleeping: what it was for, when you could sleep, where you could sleep, who you could sleep with (and I mean literal sleep, and not the other kind of sleep).

Reading all the research reports got me thinking about how we sleep in the Philippines, and the many variations. In rural areas without electricity, people are asleep by 7 or 8 p.m., shortly after sunset and dinner, to wake up before the crack of dawn. In urban areas, we shift to that pattern, too, after a strong typhoon or some natural calamity wipes out our power supply… with unintended consequences like a rise in the delivery of babies nine months later.

‘First sleep’

American anthropologist Doug Hollan had an article in Social Science and Medicine comparing sleeping patterns in the US middle class and among the Toraja in Indonesia.

Hollan said Americans looked at sleep mainly from a biological or physiological point of view—a time to rest and recharge, in a bedroom, which is seen as refuge, sealed from the world. Americans tended to sleep alone or, at most, with one other person.


The Toraja see sleeping as “seamless” with waking hours. They “co-slept” with many people, the night characterized by “punctuated sleeping” because co-sleepers would wake up and talk, or begin to eat.

What did they talk about? A lot, but mainly about dreams, which were seen as ways for the spirits, including ancestors, to communicate with the living. Some dreams, too, are seen as “prophetic,” predicting good, and adverse, events. Americans do not usually remember their dreams, Hollan noted.

A book by Roger Ekirch, “At Day’s Close,” describes how sleeping patterns evolved as well in the West. People retired shortly after dark for a “first sleep,” then at around midnight they would wake up and begin to talk with others, read, pray, and sleep as in the other kind of sleep. Then they’d go back to sleep for a few more hours.

We define sleeping norms for people of different ages, seeing naps as mandatory for children, so they’ll grow.

We also adjust, throughout our life span, to new demands. Solo parenting got me used to what is called punctuated sleeping, waking up several times at night because a child would get hungry, or wanted to be carried, or was running a fever.

I am “Western” in preferring to sleep alone or, at most, with one other person, max. In the Philippines I’ve seen rooms with, literally, heaps of bodies, heads, arms and legs indistinguishable. Many Filipinos feel more “comfortable” with many co-sleepers because they feel safer, secured from fellow human and not-so-human intruders.

This explains why some Filipinos will have difficulty sleeping when traveling, and billeted in a single room.

Suddenly, the room is too quiet—a sensory dullness (no smells except your own), and you toss and turn through the night. Yes, there is also insecurity, a fear of someone, or something, entering the room.


The siesta is important for many Filipinos, in part fulfilling a biological need in a tropical climate. There are studies showing that even a 10- or 15-minute nap can recharge you from almost total fatigue to full energy for several hours.

Office work makes it more difficult now to sneak in a siesta, but people will find ways, and even manage to sleep seated at a work desk.

Gender comes into the picture, with our men tending to nap any time of the day, anywhere. But I’ve also noticed that some of our men will cover their faces with a handkerchief or towel if they’re napping in public, reminding me of old photographs of a person about to be executed by garrote. When I asked one such napper (I had to wait for him to wake up) why he covered his face, he said it was because sometimes while sleeping, he’d drool, and that—rather than napping in public—was shameful. (I invite other readers to send me their reasons for this hanky-on-the-face while napping.)

Another instance of culture shaping our sleeping patterns: I would never tell people I’m going to take a siesta, or a nap, which makes you sound almost lazy or indolent. Instead, I would say I need to take a “power nap.” Sometimes I plead age: As a senior citizen, I need to recharge.

So what’s the big deal about all the research?

Cultural norms about sleeping can shape how we feel about sleep. I would feel guilty, and not get too rested,  if I looked at a siesta as a siesta because I’m such a workaholic—but calling it a power nap changes matters. I feel

totally exhausted if there are several people sleeping in the room, unless they’re my kids, while most of my friends will have a tough night if alone in the room.

Knowing what the norm is can help us to address the needs of night-shift workers: doctors and nurses, security guards, call center workers. Knowing what they consider to be good sleeping—interesting how it’s described as “sarap  ng  tulog,” almost tasty sleeping—can help us find ways to alleviate the problems that come from work-related disruptions to their sleep.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: column, culture, Michael L. Tan, sleep
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