When you travel to a new country, you expect to encounter different cultures and traditions. But sleeping should be universal, right? Not exactly, says Benjamin Reiss, chair of Emory’s English department and the author
of Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World. “What strikes me is how little is constant across culture,” says Reiss. “There is a biological requirement that we sleep roughly a third of our lives, and our circadian systems are loosely aligned with patterns of light and darkness…but other than that, virtually everything is up for grabs.”
A quick look at sleep habits around the world makes his point. Not all peoples, for example, subscribe to the North American normal of “monophasic” sleep—that is, sleeping one 6-9 hour stretch every 24 hours. Many people in Latin America and the Mediterranean live by biphasic or polyphasic sleep cycles, with perhaps the most famous example being Spain, whose businesses almost all close for a couple of hours every day to allow their employees a siesta—an afternoon nap.
And while the sleepless of Seattle typically go to bed alone or with just one other person, many cultures engage in “co-sleeping,” sharing beds with their children to protect from potential harm. At the other end of the spectrum, parents across Scandinavia have been known to bundle up their babies and place them outside in strollers to nap in below-freezing temperatures.
Across cultures, the many mysteries of sleeping have spawned some interesting sleep-specific ideas. Italians have a specific term, abbioco, for “the sleepiness you feel after a big meal.” Native Americans are famous for their “dream catchers,” which are hung above one’s bed in order to keep bad thoughts away and promote peaceful nights. In Zambia and Malawi, the translation of sleep in their native Chichewa is “tulo”...say it aloud and you can almost feel a sense of calm and renewal. It is also the name of the newest bed in a box. The tulo mattress is breathable and cool and comes in 3 different comfort levels—it is everything you need in a bed in a box.
Modern life can make intense demands on your time, and sleep can feel like an afterthought—a waste of time in the context of perpetually busy days. That’s a mistake, according to Reiss. “Part of what has been lost,” he says, “is the idea that sleep is pleasurable, restorative activity.” If you’re sleeping on the right mattress, that’s not a concern that will keep you up at night.