Credit Chloé Poizat
WHEN Doug Hollan arrived on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi for his anthropology dissertation fieldwork in a rice farming village, his Toraja neighbors wanted to take turns sleeping with him and his wife.
The rural Toraja almost never sleep alone. They sleep in wood frame houses with little furniture and flimsy room dividers, and they sleep on the floor together in groups, sharing blankets and huddling close for warmth. And so the Toraja have “punctuated” sleep. They wake often as others turn and get up in the night, or when a child calls out or another adult can’t sleep and starts to chat. Mr. Hollan never heard anyone complain about this.
Many years after he returned from Toraja, Mr. Hollan became a psychotherapist and opened a practice in Los Angeles. Most of his clients have voiced discomfort, at some point or another, with their sleep. They do so even though they have what you might imagine would be the perfect conditions to sleep soundly. They have private darkened rooms that they share with at most one person and, often, expensively manufactured beds that minimize disturbance to the other person when one gets up in the night. His clients want to make sure they get seven or eight hours of continuous sleep, and when they try to sleep but they can’t, they get upset.
They are not alone. The National Sleep Foundation reports that more than one in five Americans has difficulty falling asleep almost every night, and a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that about 4 percent of adults in the United States had taken a prescription sleeping pill in the previous month. In 2012 Americans spent $32 billion in the sleep-assistance industry.
This obsession with eight hours of continuous sleep is largely a creation of the electrified age. Back when night fell for, on average, half of each 24 hours, people slept in phases. In “At Day’s Close,” a remarkable history of night in the early modern West, Roger Ekirch writes that people fell asleep not long after dark for the “first sleep.” Then they awoke, somnolent but not asleep, often around midnight, when for a few hours they talked, read, prayed, had sex, brewed beer or burgled. Then they went back to sleep for a shorter period. Mr. Ekirch concludes, “There is every reason to believe that segmented sleep, such as many wild animals exhibit, had long been the natural pattern of our slumber before the modern age, with a provenance as old as humankind.”
In an era when we are trying to cram as much into a day as we can, Americans think about sleep as a biological function that needs to be managed. Mr. Hollan’s patients, he writes, think about sleep as a problem that interferes with more important things.
What have we lost with our dismissal of what the writer George Sturt called the “quiet depths of darkness”? In traditional non-Western societies like the Toraja, what happens at night really matters. People pay close attention to their dreams, and because they are awakened more often, they have more opportunity to remember them. When the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn arrived in a small village deep in the Amazon, people slept largely outdoors in an open thatch house, surrounded by other people. They would wake at night to drink tea, because it was cold, or because of the calls of animals. “Thanks to these continuous disruptions,” he writes, “dreams spill into wakefulness and wakefulness into dreams in a way that entangles them both.”
To my mind, the intriguing question is whether different sleep cultures encourage different patterns of spiritual and supernatural experience. That half-aware, drowsy state is a time when dreams commingle with awareness. People are more likely to have experiences of the impossible then. They hear their mother, many miles distant, speaking their name, or they see angels standing by the window, and then they look again and they are gone.
As an anthropologist, I set out to understand the way people experience the spirit. I’ve talked to many American evangelical Christians about the way they have experienced God. Recently, I spent time in similar evangelical churches in Accra, Ghana, and Chennai, India. One of the more startling differences is that Christians in Accra and Chennai say that God talks to them when they sleep, and in their dreams. He wakes them up by calling their names. American subjects, asked about odd events in the night, were more likely to say things like this: “I see things, but it’s just sleep deprivation.” It seems likely that the way our culture invites us to pay attention to that delicate space in which one trembles on the edge of sleep changes what we remember of it.
Many years ago, I joined a group that decided that we would write down our dreams. And my dream life changed. I seemed to dream more. I remembered more detail. I sometimes had dreams of mythic intensity. In one, my bedraggled soul swam through a storm-clogged river to put its hand upon a muddy shore. To be clear, I was also reading Jung. But it did make me wonder about the way sleep’s borderlands are textured by our social world.
T. M. Luhrmann is a contributing opinion writer and a professor of anthropology at Stanford