Shedding light on a pre-electric sleep culture
By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Jan. 31, 2012
"The window of opportunity to understand sleep without electricity is closing, because the traditional cultures of sleep are vanishing," says anthropologist Carol Worthman. Photo of Southeast Asian sleeping buddha by iStockphoto.com.
About 20 percent of the world population lives without electricity. You may wonder how these people make it through their waking hours, but Carol Worthman wants to know how they sleep.
Worthman, an anthropologist at Emory University, is leading the first quantitative study of sleeping habits in a pre-electric environment. The sleep study is just one part of a larger, five-year project to begin soon in rural Vietnam, involving 14 villages that have not been electrified or exposed to television. Half of the villages will eventually be introduced to generator-powered televisions for the experiment, while the other half will not.
The National Institute of Health and the Vietnamese government are supporting the project, headed by Penn State, which aims to answer questions about how watching television affects human health and behavior.
Worthman, a leading expert on the ecology of sleep, is most excited about garnering the baseline data for pre-electric sleep. “The window of opportunity to understand sleep without electricity is closing, because the traditional cultures of sleep are vanishing,” she says. One of the development goals of WHO, she notes, is to see every populated part of the world electrified by 2020.
“We will be filling a gap in scientific knowledge by getting the first empirical data for how people sleep with no electricity, just the sun, when their whole world revolves around subsistence and nature,” Worthman says. “Many people have this idea that in the good old days we got more sleep, but did we? Are we romanticizing our history?”