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(PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER MARTIN)

Good Night, Vietnam

• November 06, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER MARTIN)

Why this Emory prof is studying the sleeping habits of villagers halfway around the world

Carol Worthman

Anthropologist of Unconsciousness, Emory University

WHAT’S HER DEAL? Trying to find out how television affects our sleep.

HOW IS SHE DOING THAT? Worthman and her staff are currently documenting patterns of slumber among residents of 14 off-the-grid villages in a remote corner of Vietnam. Some of the 3,000 residents will soon be fitted with wireless GPS monitors and wristwatch-like gadgets that sense movement to determine whether the wearers are awake, resting, or asleep. Those devices will feed Worthman’s lab in Atlanta real-time data on where and when her subjects snooze. Early next year, seven of the villages will get electricity—and televisions. Worthman will watch to see what happens next.

WHY IS SHE DOING THAT? Some 70 million Americans have trouble getting to dreamland, a number that is apparently on the rise, especially among adolescents. Sleep disorders are linked to a range of mental and physical health problems. Many experts believe that our always-on, media-saturated culture is partly to blame, but no one has systematically tested that theory until now. “This is a chance to enter a lost world of sleep,” Worthman says. “It will fill a huge gap in our knowledge.”

HOW WILL THAT HELP? We might learn that we need to rethink the whole notion of sleep. It turns out the practice of lying down in a dark room for up to eight hours is a historical and cultural anomaly. In most societies, sleep happens more opportunistically, Worthman says. “There’s lots of sleep scattered across the day.” The hunter-gatherer tribes she studied in Africa have no set bedtimes. They often wake up in the middle of the night to play music or chat. Or think of the Spanish siesta. There’s even evidence that centuries ago, western Europeans and colonial-era Americans also broke the night’s sleep into two shifts. “Many people think the rise of our current pattern is due to industrialization and the need to synchronize people,” Worthman says. “The empirical question is: Is our pattern better or worse?” She may soon have some answers that could help those millions of insomniacs.

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.

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