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Different attitudes to sleep from around the world

Attitudes to sleep are very different from country to country. Are you sure that you are getting as much as you need?

Enough is enough

On the first day, Randy Gardner felt alert and ready to go. By day three, he had become moody and irritable, snapping at friends and only able to repeat common tongue-twisters with difficulty. As the days passed, his speech began to slur and he had trouble focusing his eyes or even remembering what he said from one minute to the next. Eventually, the walls began to melt, transforming themselves into sinuous forest paths.


Gardner, a 17-year-old high school student from San Diego, had set himself the task of staying awake for 264 hours to set a new world record. Helped through his marathon by two classmates and a sleep researcher, he reached his target at 2am on January 8, 1964. After a neurological check-up at a local hospital, he fell into a deep sleep. By the time he woke up, nearly 15 hours later, the walls were back to normal again.


Although staying awake for 11 days straight remains unusual, we all know the effects of not getting enough sleep. The condition – known as sleep debt – sets in as soon as there is a difference between the amount of sleep you should be getting and the amount you actually get. Left to build up, its long-term effects can be as serious as obesity, insulin resistance and heart disease. But while we all know that insufficient sleep is bad for us, it is remarkable how much attitudes to sleep still vary across the world.

One 2002 study – conducted in 10 major countries – concluded that although the average time slept by participants was around 7.5 hours per night, the results from individual countries varied from 6 hours 53 minutes in Japan to 8 hours 24 minutes in Portugal. To put that in perspective, the US National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sleep for between 7 and 9 hours a night (with the figure rising to 10 hours for school-age children).


Japan, it turns out, is regularly bottom of the table in the long-sleepers league. The country offers a fascinating example of the way in which sleep patterns are culturally determined. In the post-war years, Japan was keen to rebuild and reassert itself: as an expression of patriotism, Japanese workers were encouraged to start work early and finish work late. The workplace nap was even given a name – inemuri – and viewed as way of increasing productivity and demonstrating commitment, although it probably deteriorated the quality of nighttime sleep still further. Today, sleep is more undervalued in Japan than anywhere else in the world and sleep deprivation is endemic.


Yet even here in the West, the way we sleep today has little in common with the sleep of our ancestors. Artificial light has brought about significant changes in sleep patterns since its introduction in the mid-19th century. We probably sleep for an hour less each night than was the custom even a century ago, and several hours less than before industrialization and electricity. Some studies suggest artificial lighting has also encouraged the tendency to sleep in a single stretch, as opposed to the more segmented sleep patterns of many traditional societies.


The good news is that sleep debt can be repaid. Experts recommend going to bed when you are tired and letting your body wake you in the morning, with no alarm clock. For the chronically sleep-deprived, it can take months to reestablish a natural sleep pattern. So how can you tell if you are not getting enough sleep? Scientists believe that we all have different individual needs, determined by our genes. But as a general rule of thumb, if the walls start dissolving, it probably means you could use a little shut-eye.