Sleep is a naturally recurring state of relatively suspended sensory and motor activity, characterized by total or partial unconsciousness and the inactivity of nearly all voluntary muscles. It is distinguished from quiet wakefulness by a decreased ability to react to stimuli, and it is more easily reversible than hibernation or coma. It is observed in all mammals, all birds, and many reptiles, amphibians, and fish. In humans, other mammals, and a substantial majority of other animals that have been studied (such as some species of fish, birds, ants, and fruit flies), regular sleep is essential for survival.
Anthropology of sleep
Research suggests that sleep patterns vary significantly across cultures. The most striking differences are between societies that have plentiful sources of artificial light and ones that do not. The primary difference appears to be that prelight cultures have more broken-up sleep patterns. For example, people might go to sleep far sooner after the sun sets, but then wake up several times throughout the night, punctuating their sleep with periods of wakefulness, perhaps lasting several hours. The boundaries between sleeping and waking are blurred in these societies. Some observers believe that nighttime sleep in these societies is most often split into two main periods, the first characterised primarily by deep sleep and the second by REM sleep. This segmented sleep has led to expressions such as "first sleep," "watch," and "second sleep," which appear in literature from preindustrial societies all over the world.
Some societies display a fragmented sleep pattern in which people sleep at all times of the day and night for shorter periods. In many nomadic or hunter-gatherer societies, people will sleep on and off throughout the day or night depending on what is happening. Plentiful artificial light has been available in the industrialised West since at least the mid-19th century, and sleep patterns have changed significantly everywhere that lighting has been introduced. In general, people sleep in a more concentrated burst through the night, going to sleep much later, although this is not always true.
In some societies, people generally sleep with at least one other person (sometimes many) or with animals. In other cultures, people rarely sleep with anyone but a most intimate relation, such as a spouse. In almost all societies, sleeping partners are strongly regulated by social standards. For example, people might only sleep with their immediate family, extended family, spouses, their children, children of a certain age, children of specific gender, peers of a certain gender, friends, peers of equal social rank, or with no one at all. Sleep may be an actively social time, depending on the sleep groupings, with no constraints on noise or activity.
People sleep in a variety of locations. Some sleep directly on the ground; others on a skin or blanket; others sleep on platforms or beds. Some sleep with blankets, some with pillows, some with simple headrests, some with no head support. These choices are shaped by a variety of factors, such as climate, protection from predators, housing type, technology, and the incidence of pests.
- Healthy Sleep from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation
- Is Sleep Essential? by Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi, from the Public Library of Science Biology
- National Center on Sleep Disorders Research