Dr. David Samson

Professional Biography

Dr. David Samson has a high-profile research program featured in such venues as BBC, Time, New York Times, and New Scientist. His research investigates the link between sleep and human evolution through revolutionary new approaches, recording sleep data sets and sleep architecture for a range of primates including lemurs, zoo orangutans, wild chimpanzees, and humans living in different types and scales of societies. (He has just received a National Geographic grant to study sleep in Hadza hunter-gatherer communities, for example.) Sleep has been identified as a major factor in human physical and mental health, yet almost no research has been done on the role of sleep in human evolution; Dr. Samson’s research directly addresses the central anthropological question of human uniqueness in comparison to other animals for the major topic of sleep.

Learn more at: https://www.utm.utoronto.ca/david-samson/

Reflection Questions

What time of day do you suspect your cognition is functioning at its best? How might you begin capitalizing on this?

What does the evolutionary perspective on sleep make possible for you personally?

Do you sleep well? Why or why not?

What can you do to begin sleeping better? 

How might your sleep habits be affecting your waking life?

In your opinion, what is the function of dreams? 

Further Resources

The importance of good sleep – Watch this discussion featuring Dr. Samson on how evolution has shaped human sleep, the sleep-disruptive influence of computers and smart phones, and the links between poor sleep and dementia.

Learn more about ‘sleep hygiene’ by watching the video below:

Introducing Dr. Samson

Listen to Dr. Samson discuss his investigation into the way great apes sleep and how this led him to explore sleep’s evolutionary function in humans. 

Why Humans Sleep

Dr. Samson explains the recent discovery that the way humans sleep is very unique among primates. We sleep shorter but also have a higher proportion of REM sleep. He then explains the evolutionary function of dreams, known as ‘threat simulation theory,’ and connects this to early human social structures. Since we had a community to protect us, we were able to sleep deeply without risk of being eaten by predators.

How Does Light Affect Sleep?

Dr. Samson explains the role of the evolutionary perspective in learning to sleep well. By understanding the ancient importance of the circadian rhythm, we can get back to basics and begin noticing whether our lifestyles are working against it. It’s important to get outside often so that our bodies can respond to natural cues. 

Biohacking Your Sleep

Dr. Samson explains an experiment his students are doing to assess what factors influence the quality of their sleep. He discusses the importance of blocking out ‘blue wave’ light from our LCD screens, so the students only use candlelight after sunset. This allows our brains to cue the circadian rhythm by releasing melatonin. Once our circadian rhythms are on track, we can begin dealing with other factors.

Finding the Best Time for Work and Play

Dr. Samson discusses the importance of knowing what time of day your cognition is strongest. If you are a ‘morning person,’ for example, then the best time to work on challenging problems is before noon. This is why knowing your chronotype is so useful. You don’t necessarily have to cut out your vices (eg., TV watching and video games), but you do have to time them correctly if you want to sleep well. This doesn’t mean we have to live by strict schedules, but we can use this knowledge as a tool whenever we need it most.