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The San hunter-gatherers of Namibia have no electric lights or new Netflix releases that keep them awake. Yet, they don't sleep more than the typical Western city-dweller who stays up doom-scrolling on their smartphone.
The various ways that human sleep is unusual. We spend fewer hours asleep than our nearest relatives, and more of our night sleep is spent in the rapid eye movement or REM phase.
To learn about how ancient humans slept, anthropologists study contemporary non-industrial societies, such as the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania and various groups in Madagascar, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Sleep across all three groups averages around 5.7 - 7.1 hours, which is much less than primates.
Evolutionary anthropologist David Samson thinks the evolution of human sleep is a story about safety in numbers when humans began sleeping on the ground and napping often.
The threat of predators may have led humans to sleep less than tree-living primates. Yet, scientists point out that existing data about sleep in primates come from captive animals, who may sleep more because the animals are bored.
Having data from more wild animals would help sleep researchers although it is more challenging to do. If scientists had a clearer picture of primate sleep in the wild, it might turn out that human sleep isn’t as exceptionally short as it seems.
How much we sleep is different from how much we wish we slept. Research from 2017 shows that out of 37 people, 35 said they slept just enough. On average, they slept about 6.25 hours a night. But they awoke frequently and needed more than 9 hours in bed to get those 6.25 hours.
By contrast, a 2016 study of nearly 500 people found they spend almost all of their time in bed asleep and got about 7 hours of sleep, yet 87 percent in a 2020 survey said they didn't feel rested at least one day per week.
A better understanding of how human sleep evolved could help people rest better.
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