As part of LWON’s first birthday celebrations, Ginny set a question for me:
Your upcoming book is about experiencing time in different cultures. I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, could you tell us which country/city/village, in your opinion, has the best conception of time? (However you’d like to define best.) In other words, where should I move to feel more sane?
I’d be happy to help you shop for cultures that might suit your sanity, Ginny. The results won’t be the same as my own assessment of their coolness, though, because like many science writers, I grew up as a sci-fi kid and see biological limitations merely as rough design guidelines ripe for meddling. I resent the third of my life stolen by sleep and love that we, through the ever-expanding use of artificial light, have colonized the night.
Perhaps you’d prefer somewhere with a concept of time that fits human activities, rather than a soulless number on a digital clock. In Sudan, the Nuer people are cow herds and tell the time according to the day’s work schedule. The clock might read milking time, pasturing time or cattle-moving time. According to anthropologist Wade Davis, Borneo’s Penan people measure time using subjective perception. If a hunting trip reaped a lot of meat, it’s understood to have taken a shorter time, even though it could have lasted several days.
The key to kicking your enslavement with a clock is to find a culture where, rather than sticking to a timetable, sequencing is what’s important. In elders’ forums in communities near me, for example, an agenda is often set and each subject discussed for as long as it takes, not according to a prearranged time window. Nature serves as the clock, and calendars are based on animal behaviour and ripening fruits. In contrast, your current feeling of insanity might come from living inside, where it’s always mid-afternoon in late spring.
I assume you’d be happier – all things being equal – in a place where the daily rhythms are in harmony with your body’s circadian rhythms. The circadian system is what a plant or animal can use to plot out its priorities—be they eating, resting, growing or hiding—during the day and night. There is a day and night happening out there in the world, a planet rotating while in orbit around the sun, but there is also a day within. The internal day usually passes in tandem with the external day, but must not be mistaken for a facet of it. They’re not the same thing.
I also assume you’d like to be somewhere you can consistently enjoy a good night’s rest. Cultural conceptions of a good night’s rest are wildly variable. For example, my earliest immersion in a non-Western culture was as part of Canada World Youth, a program that pairs a group of Canadian teens with, in our case, an Egyptian counterpart. Beyond the obvious mismatch between Canadian teen culture and the priorities of Islam, there were countless small divergences. For the Canadians, a common theme, unexpectedly, was the sanctity of sleep. Once asleep, a North American adult is likely to be, if not tiptoed around, at least left undisturbed unless there is some type of emergency. In contrast, if I retired at 10 in Egypt, I might be woken at midnight by someone asking where I put the spatula. I started to wonder why I had ever thought sleep was a state deserving of respect. Perhaps it is only when a society becomes chronically sleep-deprived that hours of it are hoarded and jealously guarded from disruption.
This bears out in the research. Solitary sleep on a softly cushioned surface, between four walls and under a roof—it’s hardly typical. Anthropologist Carol Worthman has spent many years in the field studying nighttime in traditional societies. In contrast with the Western sleep model—a regular bedtime followed by continuous sleep until morning—the Eje of Congo have some level of social activity persisting through all hours. The sleeping area of a family will see coming and going as some members retire, grooming each other for parasites that might disturb their sleep, and others hear the familiar strains of a thumb piano and get up to dance.
Botswana’s !Kung have similarly staggered bedtimes in their two-metre-round huts made of sticks and leaves. The huts aren’t much of an insulator for heat, sound, or predators—they mostly just keep the rain off—and it’s easy to feel embedded in the social interaction outside the hut. This setup lends itself to a less defined difference between sleeping and waking. Adults and children alike stay up as long as something interesting is going on, and it’s perfectly acceptable to check out of a group conversation by going to sleep. It’s a convenient way of cutting short an interminable or circular argument that’s become frustrating. Though sleepers won’t be woken at random, noone makes a particular effort to be quiet around sleeping people. Groups of men use the predawn quiet to debate, chat and settle disputes.
Hope this helps!