Exploring cross-cultural attitudes to sleep

(File: AAP)

Scientists have been studying how culture, migration and, in many cases, trauma are affecting Australians' sleeping habits.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

While most people experience sleep difficulties at some time in their lives, scientists suspect refugees may have a much higher incidence of sleep disorders than other Australians.

And while problems sleeping have been much studied from a medical perspective, cross-cultural attitudes to sleep have received less attention.

The University of Victoria is taking a closer look at the sleeping habits of recently arrived Sudanese refugees to find out how culture, migration and, in many cases, trauma are affecting these Australians' sleeping habits.

Sleep should be a simple enough process - assume a relaxed or horizontal position, close the eyes and wake around eight hours later hopefully refreshed and ready to take on another day.

But how and when we sleep and with whom varies from culture to culture.

Dorothy Bruck is a Professor of Psychology at Victoria University.

She and other researchers at the university's Centre for Cultural Diversity & Wellbeing are taking a closer look at the sleeping habits of Australia's South Sudanese population.

Professor Bruck explains why.

"It's because they're a very large group of newly-arrived migrants yet they've been settled here for between five and ten years. Basically we don't know anything about their sleep and we don't know whether they indeed have as we suspect high levels of sleep disorders, including insomnia, and the extent to which these might be related to the traumas that they've experienced back in the Sudan before they were able to flee that country. And also because they come from more traditional societies where sleep is often seen in quite different terms."

Professor Bruck says the South Sudanese population is of particular interest because they come from a developing country, where different patterns of sleep are observed over the 24-hour period to those commonly seen in the West.

She says in many developing countries sleep isn't always taken as a single eight-hour block as it commonly is in Western countries.

Sleeping for say a four-hour-block, and then waking up and doing something else for an hour or so, before falling asleep again for another couple of hours, is commonplace.

Napping is also more widespread than it is in Australia.

As for insomnia, Professor Bruck says other studies have shown insomnia is also seen differently in some other parts of the world.

"We did a study that was published this year, immigrants from Zimbabwe and Ghana and what we found when we asked them about their beliefs and attitudes to insomnia is that they see it very much as a physical thing, a bodily thing that you might go to a doctor about, rather than something that might be related to worry or stress, which I think is interesting. I think in Western society we do realise that a lot of how you sleep is related to what you take in your head when you go to bed, whereas what the immigrants from Africa were telling us is that you see it as something that's got much more to do with the body, which is indeed how they see depression as well, that it's much more a physical thing rather than a mental thing."

Research from Virginia Tech in the United States supports Professor Bruck's view that the eight-hour block of uninterrupted sleep is a fairly recent phenomenon in Western culture.

The biggest change to our sleep patterns occurred when electric light was introduced.

Prior to that segmented sleep was considered normal.

Yasmine Musharbash is a senior lecturer in the Anthropology Department at the University of Sydney.

She spent 18 months living with and researching the sleeping patterns of the Warlpiri people in the Northern Territory.

She says while some things are changing, other aspects of their traditional sleeping behaviour remain, such as co-sleeping with people other than one's intimate partner and taking sleep in shorter segments.

"It's not just the sleeping with others but it's also the way in which sleep really isn't seen as we see it, that it should be this uninterrupted period at night. There's like lots of little portions of it where people don't get grumpy for example when they get woken up in the middle of the night. In fact they get very grumpy when they don't get woken up if something's happened. The other thing that comes along with that is that I can't think of a Warlpiri person that when they are woken up and it doesn't matter if it's 3am in the morning or an afternoon snooze when they get woken up that they're ever grumpy. Like I get grumpy. They don't. There's a specific way of waking people up that you gently touch their belly first to settle down their spirit. And then you talk to them very quietly, the waking up is a very gentle process."

Dr Maree Barnes is a sleep physician with the Australian Sleep Health Foundation.

She says technology is one of the biggest threats to human sleep, with the lights and sounds emanating from devices such as computers and phones tricking our bodies into thinking it's daylight, affecting our ability to fall asleep.

Dr Barnes says co-sleeping is another factor influencing sleep, a practice which is more widespread in western societies than many people think.

And while it's common in many countries, in industrialised nations it remains a contentious issue.

"The prevalence of co-sleeping in our society is quite high, I think, people just don't talk about it. And that's not just co-sleeping with children but also co-sleeping with their animals dogs and cats in particular. The data as I recall is that up to 20 per cent of the population actually co-sleeps with somebody apart from their domestic partner. The number of people in some people's beds is quite astounding: like it can be up to five people in the bed, by the time you have a couple of children and maybe a cat or a dog. Whether or not co-sleeping is good for you is a bit problematic and quite a sensitive question I think, and certainly culturally co-sleeping with children has been seen to be an essential component of the culture in some communities."

Along with the impact of migration, Professor Dorothy Brucks's research into the sleeping habits of recently arrived Sudanese-Australians will also consider the impact of mental health, shift work and stimulant intake on the sleep patterns of this group.

Professor Bruck says there's a lot to learn from studying the impact of culture on sleep.

"If we look at cultures all around the world, we see that sleep is interpreted in very different ways between different cultures and between the western culture and the more traditional cultures. And that's going to have implications on how we deal with their sleep problems, how we best help them."

Source SBS Radio

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