Sorry, You Probably Can’t Sleep Just 6 Hours A Night

A recent study published in Current Biology on the sleep habits of three “pre-industrial” societies has been making waves in science journalism circles for suggesting that we don’t need to sleep eight hours a night. The study found that the hunter-gatherers in question, who live in South America and Africa, sleep between 5.7 and 7.1 hours a night on average, which the authors suggest is no more than “modern” humans. The research has touched off a wave of reports that public health recommendations to sleep 7-8 hours a night are overblown.

Both the study and its coverage bear a second look.

Reading between the lines

Exaggerating the takeaways of an isolated finding is nothing new; science reporting turns on the revelation of headline-sized takeaways from dense research. In writing up the sleep study, news outlets honed in on the ostensible guilt of those who don’t get eight hours of shuteye.

Not Getting 8 Hours of Sleep? Neither Do Hunter-Gatherers,” Newsweek reassures readers. The New York Times suggests that the study’s findings counter “health authorities [who] have long suggested that poor sleep is rampant in America,” and strikes a populist note by quoting a sleep expert who says, “It’s difficult to envision how we can claim that Western society is highly sleep deprived if these groups… sleep less or about the same amount as the average Joe does here in North America.”

And on New York magazine’s blog “The Science of Us,” a report on the study begins, “You would get so much more sleep if not for the modern evils of electricity, TV, and the internet, right?” This type of coverage seeks to extrapolate the findings of a single study to assuage some collective guilt about not sleeping enough that we receive from a shrewish public —> Read More