Less Tech May Not Mean More Sleep


You’ve probably heard from a variety of sources that technology is ruining your sleep. Many sleep experts have cautioned troubled sleepers that the trappings of modern life, from tablets and phones to just having the lights on late at night, are preventing them from getting the shut-eye they need. While the assumption had always been that it’s these bright-light distractions that keep people from getting in their needed eight hours, new research has found that may not be the case. After looking at the sleep habits of three low-tech societies in Africa and South America, the researchers found our late-night habits may not be as modern as previously thought.

Who determines how much sleep we need?

You’ve probably heard that you need about seven to eight hours of sleep, but who actually determines those numbers? The medical recommendations about sleep have been based on two main sources. First, researchers have conducted numerous studies looking at how much people sleep and how that correlates with health. Many have found a bell-shaped curve with the healthiest people clustering around seven to eight hours of sleep and the less healthy falling below seven and above nine hours. It’s unclear from these studies if that means less sleep causes poor health or whether it’s just that sick people tend to have more sleep problems.

Second, observational studies have brought people into the lab to watch their sleep habits free of responsibilities and distractions. This means that they keep them in a controlled environment and give them the freedom to sleep as often and as long as they want. This research has found that many people sleep a little longer than normal initially to catch up on any sleep deprivation they might come in with. After several days, though, most settle into a natural rhythm of around seven to eight hours per night. These two lines of research, among others, have helped sleep experts recommend seven to eight hours of sleep for most healthy people.

Has technology affected our sleeping habits?

Many have argued that the introduction of artificial light into our modern lives has changed the way we sleep. The assumption has been that sunlight guided our sleep habits before electricity rolled around, which meant we went to bed with the sunset and woke up with the sunrise. That generally gave us at least seven to eight solid hours of sleep, if not more. Artificial light has given people the ability to stay up long past the setting of the sun and has been shown by many studies to have an impact on the brain structures that govern when and how long we sleep. Many took it for granted that technology must mess with the way we sleep because of these changes in our nighttime habits and because our sleep is often disconnected from the sunrise and sunset. This team of researchers wondered whether these assumptions would hold under examination.

How did the researchers test the effects of technology on natural sleep?

Instead of bringing people into a lab to watch them sleep without artificial light, the researchers found several groups of people living in Africa and South America that live lifestyles similar to those of pre-technology humans. They don’t use electrical devices or artificial light, and their sleep patterns are governed by the natural sunlight and changing of the seasons. They followed the sleep habits of these three groups to see how different they were from people living in more “modern” settings and looked at napping habits and insomnia problems. They also wanted to see how the inability to control temperature with an air conditioner or heater might affect sleep quality.

What did the researchers find out about sleep?

The groups were generally fairly similar in their sleep patterns. Many did go to bed and wake up in the average seven-to-eight-hour range, but most only got six to seven hours of actual sleep during that period of time. Importantly, there was no indication that these groups of people got more sleep than those living in technological settings. The main difference when it came to sleep habits was change with the seasons. No real seasonal variation has been seen for those living in developed settings, but the groups studied slept about an hour more during the winter when the nights were longer.

Another difference was that sleep took place only during the dark hours of the night. “Sleeping in” after the sun was completely up wasn’t seen, although one group did regularly sleep until an hour after sunrise. Finally, temperature played an important role. The most sleep occurred toward the end of the night when temperatures were coolest. Past research has shown that people living in modern contexts also sleep well when the temperature is cool, but because many have climate control and home insulation, these temperatures can occur early on in the night, rather than toward the end of it, which may affect modern sleeping patterns.

Interestingly, the researchers found the unplugged societies rarely napped during the daytime and few also suffered from insomnia. Those that did have trouble sleeping at night reported the problems were often short-lived and the groups studied often didn’t even have a word in their language for insomnia.

What does this mean for me?

While this study shows that our pre-technology selves weren’t necessarily sleeping much longer than we are today, it doesn’t mean that screens and other artificial light at night aren’t causing us problems. As noted in the study, almost one in five Americans suffers from insomnia, which is a disorder unheard of in the communities studied. What the study does show is that we’ve probably been hitting the hay seven to eight hours before we plan to wake up for a long time. It also shows that factors like temperature and daylight exposure are powerful controllers of our sleep habits and need to be considered if you’re having trouble getting to bed. If you’ve been having trouble sleeping or wake up feeling tired even after a long night of sleep, talk to your doctor about illnesses that might be interrupting your sleep or ways to improve your sleep quality.