How we sleep isn’t as obvious as it may at first seem. It’s easy to imagine that everyone sleeps like we do. We probably picture ourselves lying under the bedclothes on a mattress, turning off the bedside lamp and aiming for 7 – 8 hours of slumber during the night hours. However, there are a number of influences at play which could, if different, alter almost every aspect of this image.
First of all, cultural norms dictate a lot more about how we sleep than we might think. If we look at Egyptian sleeping habits for example from a study done by Carol Worthman at Emory University, it is common for several family members to sleep in the same room and windows are usually left open, even in extremely noisy places like Cairo. This is nothing, however, compared to the Ache of Paraguay, where people sleep together in large groups of children, old people, animals and adults all together, chatting and socialising to help everyone feel safe as part of the community. The Temiars of Indonesia and the Ibans of Sarawak, are also busy at night, with usually a quarter of any group active at each point throughout the night.
We in the West tend to bed down for the night, but this is a very different approach to the Kung of Botswana and the Efe of Zaire, both of whom sleep as and when they feel like it, day or night. This is called polyphasic sleep. Faint reflections of this style of sleep are even seen in some Western cultures, such as in Spain, where the siesta is a cultural phenomenon.
How long we sleep has been affected by the invention of artificial light. We tend to sleep at least an hour less than we did a century ago and probably a couple of hours less than before electricity was discovered and we could have light independent of what time of day it is. How long we sleep is also a cultural characteristic. A study in 2009 by the OECD found that the average French person sleeps about nine hours a night, whereas less than eight hours is all the average Japanese or Korean will get.
Even when we consider those who sleep in a bed during the night, alone or with a partner, there is much that influences how we sleep.
Although we may think we choose our sleeping position, the reality is that this is also heavily influenced by factors beyond our control. A number of studies, including a one by Professor Idzikowski of The Edinburgh Sleep Centre and backed up by a questionnaire from the budget hotel chain, Premier Inn, came to the conclusion that our personality traits influence how we position our bodies during sleep. The study found that most people are unlikely to change their sleeping position - just 5% said they sleep in a different position every night, so it seems that our sleeping position says something about us.
The foetal position is the most common way to lie with, one study suggesting about 40% of British people sleep like this. The foetal position is where you lie on your side curled up as a baby lies in its mother’s womb. It suggests the sleeper is returning to their comfort zone to de-stress themselves from the day's activities. This position tends to be adopted by people who appear tough on the outside, but are actually quite sensitive. Foetal sleepers tend to be conscientious, ordered and like things in their place but they can overthink things and worry unnecessarily.
Somewhere between 15 - 30% of the population sleep in the log position, when you lie on your back with both arms straight down by your sides. This position can show that a person is inflexible and rigid in thinking, set in their ways and stubborn which can make them come across as bossy or even aloof. Trying to relax more and letting muscles unwind from the day's hassles can help people who sleep like this wake up thinking more flexibly.
Another popular sleeping position (13 – 25% of people taking part in the study) is called the yearner position which is sleeping with arms stretched out in front as though chasing dreams or being chased. The study suggested that people who sleep like this want more from life and are willing to go after their dreams. They can be their own worst critics, however, expecting great results in everything they do and giving up quickly when things don’t go their way. These people should take care to go after what they really want and avoid wasting time pursuing whims that do not really leave them fulfilled, it is advised.
With around 15% of us sleeping in this way, the freefall position is also common, where people sleep face down with their arms outstretched. This sleep position is often adopted by people wanting to look like thy aren’t bothered by what other think of them, but in fact tend to take criticism personally. Many freefallers end up clinging to their pillow as if they are holding on for dear life, thinking that they can’t control what will happen to them and so feeling anxious. Freefallers tend to feel like life happens around them and they are just hanging on for the ride, which can make them feel like they're not in control.
The Starfish position which accounts for the habitual sleeping position of about 5% of the population is when you lie on your back with both arms up around the pillow. These sleepers make good friends because they are always ready to listen to others, and offer help when needed. They generally don't like to be the centre of attention.
Even when it comes to duvets, there are some different approaches. Professor Idzikowski found that British people’s most common position is to have one arm or leg sticking out of the duvet, followed by the next most popular where both feet are poking out the end. Only one in ten people like to cover themselves entirely with their duvet.
How we sleep is affected by a number of internal and external influences. Many of these probably come from our basic instincts of how best to survive, since sleeping is when we are not aware of what is happening around us and so we do the best we can to minimise the risk. This would seem to be both at the cultural and individual levels.
So next time you are curled up on your mattress under your duvet, or with your face in your pillow, consider how you might feel sleeping beside a goat, or catching up on your sleep at a random time of the day, having been busy all night; consider how the following day you might feel better by understanding what your sleeping body’s position is telling you about yourself and how you might use that knowledge effectively; consider the pros and cons of having the choice to have light or darkness and all this does to our sleep patterns. How we sleep tells us a lot about who we are, as well as offering us insight into others.