When you picture a snorer, a burly, bearded man probably comes to mind. I have a confession: If he and young, fit, female me were to share a shelter, my snoring would probably keep him up.
I’ve snored since I was six years old, and I often say that it’s the thing I’d change about myself if I were given the opportunity. It made me self-conscious and embarrassed, and it was something that I went to great efforts to hide from the rest of the world, until recently. These days, I just don’t have energy to waste on being self-conscious; there are too many fun things I want to do and experience. Even more than that, I don’t worry about my snoring because I have this hypothesis that it’s actually useful.
As an aspiring and snoring scientist, I would sometimes consider how a behavior like snoring could have evolved.* If commercials and popular culture have taught me anything (besides that I should be white), it’s that no one wants a bedfellow who snores. And, thus, it seems as though sexual selection would have removed snoring from our species long ago.
But, what if snoring actually confers some benefit to the snorer besides scaring away persistent pink blazers**?
The Shenandoah National Park–and much of the Appalachian Trail in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey–is filled with black bears. A few thru-hikers make it through the Mid-Atlantic states without seeing any bears, but I fail to understand how that’s possible.
I’ve seen many bears in the eastern woods, both mothers with their cubs and lone males. Generally, as long as you’re not between a mother and her cubs, she won’t bother you; the lone males, on the other hand, are looking for prey. Therefore, your goal is to convince them that you’re not prey. Most of the time, that’s not very difficult, but it can be more complicated when they’re stalking your tent in the middle of the night, after you’ve hiked 25 miles that day and just want to sleep.
Here’s where snoring comes in.
Throughout the Mid-Atlantic, my tent sites have been haunted by a number of black bears. Before I fall asleep, I bang my hiking poles in their direction and make enough noise to frighten them off. When I hear their rustlings in the middle of the night, I often just roll over and keep sleeping. My insomniac of a hiking companion laughed at this behavior until he noticed that it worked: My snoring would scare the bears away with as much effectiveness and far less effort than climbing out of the tent to create a ruckus would.
Thus, snoring evolved as a defense mechanism. Q.E.D.
*For the record, I’m just having fun with this idea. I realize that much of evolution is non-adaptive and that behaviors/traits can stick around as long as there isn’t a strong selective disadvantage to them.
**A “pink blazer” is a (terribly annoying) man who changes his hiking itinerary to hike with/near a female hiker he fancies.