Research Blog

2 minute video

I made a two minute video (actually 1 minute 49 seconds) as a very brief introduction to my sleep justice design research. It was quite fun to make, especially filming in City Road at night. There were less people around than we thought but luckily a bus came past. Huge thanks to Bryce for shooting and helping with finessing sound and colour grading and to Ruth for helping out on the City Road shoot.

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Sleep talking on BBC radio

Here’s something I wrote for our work blog:

PDR’s Dr Sally Cloke was interviewed on BBC Radio’s Free Thinking about her research into sleep, design and justice.

Sally was part of a panel with other academics discussing various aspects of sleep, including sleep in fiction, politics and sleep and the history of the alarm clock.

“I talked about the boom in new sleep devices such as sleep trackers, sleep headphones and ‘smart’ bedding,” said Sally, PDR’s Human Centred Design Assistant Researcher. “While these products are targeted at the individual’s sleep experience, in reality the factors that affect how well we sleep are environmental and economic – urban noise, inadequate housing, precarious employment, the 24/7 economy. These need addressing on a social and political level, not with new and better gadgets.”

“I was also able to share my passion for speculative and critical design and discuss its potential role in raising people’s awareness of how good sleep has become a consumer good. It’s not so much that we’re losing sleep: capitalism is stealing it – then selling it back to us.”

The program aired on Radio 3 on March 13 and is now available on the BBC website (click here for details and to listen) and as an episode of the Free Thinking / Arts & Ideas podcast.

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Field trip: into the archives

On Tuesday I paid a visit to Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives to see their pop-up exhibition on sleep and dreams. This display presented a carefully curated selection of old and rare books and other printed material from the archives presenting a literary history of sleep and dreams. They also had a gorgeous set of promotional bookmarks and postcards, which I helped myself to.

It was fascinating to see how so many of our contemporary anxieties around sleep have counterparts in the mediaeval period. How much sleep is enough? How do we ensure we sleep well? How can we avoid bad dreams? These seem to be perennial questions. While most modern people aren’t concerned about witches’ curses causing our insomnia, many of us would attest to the almost supernatural power of the smartphone and tablet to bewitch us and steal away our slumber.

The exhibition also pointed me in some new directions which may not fit into my current research into the sociological aspects of poor sleep but could well spark some further investigations in a related area – the link between sleep, dreams and political desire. There’s the trope of the sleeper who wakes from a magically prolonged slumber into a new, utopian society. And the legends of past heroes who are not dead, but sleeping, and will return to save their people when the need is sufficiently dire (this category apparently includes Owain Glyndwr, the last true Prince of Wales). These politically-charged stories combine the visionary aspects of dreams as well as the mysterious, not-quite-alive nature of being asleep (two states that are available to all regardless of social station), to create positive revolutionary propaganda.

A big “diolch” is due to Sara Huws, Civic Engagement Officer, Libraries and Archives at Cardiff University, for taking time to show me the collection and for an inspiring chat about her research and interests.

Some images from the exhibition

The Seven Sleepers is a medieval Islamic and Christian legend. Seven young men, persecuted for their faith, are protected when they fall into a supernatural sleep in a cave. They awake centuries later when the persecution is over.
Christian socialist and artist William Morris used the motif of sleep to illustrate his parables on social justice. In his novel ‘News from Nowhere’ (subtitled ‘Or an Epoch of Rest’), the Victorian narrator wakes up in a magic-realist socialist utopia where work is meaningful and people are free to pursue their idea of happiness.
In ‘A Dream of John Ball’ Morris borrows a historical figure from the Peasants’ Revolt (1381), a radical preacher. John Bull dreams that society might be more just and equitable in the 19th century, but a time traveller from the future tells him that the Industrial Revolution has actually made things worse.
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Sleep in the news: sleep is a feminist issue

Part of a semi-regular series of brief descriptions and links to articles on sleep (and sleep justice) in the news.

Assistive technologies for sleep have been around a lot longer than we might think. While smart-phone apps are relatively new, the first “sleep conditioner” appliance – basically a bedside white-noise generator – was invented in around 1960 as a response to a night in a noisy hotel room. Read The Atlantic‘s article on origins and development of the Rubber Maid Sleep-Mate – today updated and rebranded as the Dohm and apparently still popular.

A Dohm white-noise generator. Only £59.22.

Covid hasn’t gone away (as much as we might like to pretend). And research has linked it to even more unpleasant effects – this time insomnia and other sleep difficulties. It’s even more pronounced with the dreaded long Covid. The Conversation has the bad news here. While the article promises to offer advice on how to sleep better despite Covid, the recommendations follow the same old list of personal/individual interventions. Sigh…

Finally, if you want something a little more scholarly but still understandable – and that actually places sleep in its social context! – The Journalist’s Resource has an excellent “explainer”. Covering recent research into sleep disparities, it includes links to articles on how inequality can impact sleep, and the important role played by factors like race, education level, gender and socio-economic status.

Apparently, while more men experience sleep-apnea, which is commonly causes by physical health factors such as obesity, more women suffer from plain old trouble sleeping. According to one researcher:

“…there’s a psychological component to higher rates of insomnia in women, as they’re more likely to be affected by domestic violence, workplace discrimination, misogyny in workplace and in the world.”

Sleep justice is a feminist issue! Pass it on.

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Workshop: user-testing speculative design

I know I’m skipping ahead a bit, and I haven’t been posting about my actual concept development, but I want to cut to the chase and discuss the user-testing workshop I ran yesterday with 10 of my PDR colleagues.

I’ve been working on a number of possible ways to use speculative design to raise public awareness of the social and economic factors that affect whether people get enough sleep. I’d chosen three concepts and developed them to paper prototype – ie realistic visualisation – level. I’ll talk more about these in a future post. Here I want to focus on the workshop.

The workshop had two aims. The first was to gather ideas from people to find out what they believed played a role in whether they got enough sleep. The second was to see if speculative design “worked” by getting people thinking in creative ways about what they needed to get enough sleep.

I divided participants into two groups of five. Group A was tasked with brainstorming everything they felt had an impact on them getting enough sleep, whether positive or negative, and write their responses on sticky-notes. Their next job was to transfer the sticky-notes to a large version of the following diagram, to see what patterns emerged. The diagram features five concentric circles which represent different levels at which our environment (in the broadest sense of the word) impacts on our sleep: individual, sociodemographic, interpersonal, community and policy, and society.

Hale, Troxel & Buysse’s sociological model of sleep health.

I gave Group B a quick overview of my speculative design concepts for sleep justice. Then they played a simplified version of Situation Lab’s futures thinking activity, The Thing from the Future. They were given two sets of cards, one labelled Futures, which specified a particular kind of future (Green, Feminist, etc) and the other labelled Things (Building, Clothing Item, etc). They chose one card from each set to create a prompt for developing a sleep-related speculative design intervention. They prototyped their concepts using card and paper.

It was a lot to fit into an hour, but it worked, thanks to some very willing participants. Here are a couple of photos from the workshop.

An abundance of sticky-notes.
Working on speculative design interventions for sleep.
The ideal house for sleep: quiet, smart and featuring a giant cat to encourage napping!

The next step is to take the data (what was said, written and created in the workshop) and analyse it. One interesting output I can report on: looking at the sticky-note diagram, one participant commented: “There’s nothing in society [ie at societal level] that’s good for sleep, only bad for it.”

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Over the past months while I’ve been working on my sleep justice and design research project I’ve made some great connections with other academics doing interesting work in and adjacent to the field.

Prof Jonathan White. Jonathan is a political philosopher at London School of Economics. Reading his article in Aeon and its more scholarly version in the Journal of Political Philosophy sparked my original interest in sleep justice. Jonathan’s main research areas are in European politics and sleep is something of a side project for him.

Prof Lauren Hale. Lauren is a pioneer researcher in the sociological determinants of sleep. Based at Stony Brook University in NY she has written extensively on the connections between sleep and factors such as disadvantage, urban environment and life-stage.

Dr Sebastian Klinger. Sebastian is a literature fellow at Oxford University and the convenor of the Sleep and the Rhythms of Life research network. They’re investigating how sleep is represented in literature and the arts, a truly fascinating topic.

It’s very interesting to see how the field of sleep studies is becoming broader to include much more than medical and scientific approaches. And it’s a real privilege to be able to discuss ideas with such a range of smart and thoughtful people. It’s clear that recognition is growing that sleep is not just an individual, biological phenomenon, but social, culture, political and economic. As such, it “presents a vital opportunity for intervention from the humanities” (Heubener 2018, p. 67). And from design.

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Sleep in the news: sleep, status and boredom

Part of a semi-regular series of brief descriptions and links to articles on sleep (and sleep justice) in the news.

I had a look at my proposed research plan to find out just how behind I am. I’ve done some 3D printing and put in a long book order. And quite a bit of reading, thinking, note-taking and scribbling has been done. There will be a time to stop looking and start doing in earnest. But it seems there’s always something new to read about sleep.

This New Yorker article isn’t exactly new, but it is fascinating. It describes some pro-sleep interventions that sound speculative but aren’t, like smart pillows, headsets, and other gadgets (see below), as well as podcasts and meditation courses. But the main point comes in the title: Sleep is the New Status Symbol. “I can see sleep being another weapon in competitive parenting and career-building,” says one researcher. Should we put our average hours of sleep on our resumes? Now there’s an idea.

This is the Sense, a gadget that measures air quality and noise in your bedrooms and suggests ways to improve your sleep.
This is the Sense, a gadget that measures air quality and noise in your bedroom and suggests ways to improve your sleep.

Being bored is supposed to send us to sleep. So The Guardian lists the best podcasts designed to bore us silly. “Designed to” is the key term here. They actually sound a bit too interesting, actually. What about listening to something just plain old boring?

Next, a writer for The Vulture goes on an odyssey through the latest in sleep wisdom in search of a better night’s sleep. Every night for two weeks she tries a different technique. Playing late night video games does not help – perhaps not unsurprisingly. In fact, nothing she tries really works. The article includes some interesting comments on the snobbery lurking behind judgements on people’s late night habits. Is staying up late watching junk TV so frowned on because it’s terrible for your sleep or because it’s junk TV and therefore bad?

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Sleep in the news: sleep tourism and silly hats

Part of a semi-regular series of brief descriptions and links to articles on sleep (and sleep justice) in the news.

I won’t apologise for the long hiatus in posting. Life gets in the way of both sleep and work. In this case, some good things in life like travel and moving house. But sleep news waits for no-one, so here are a few articles I’ve bookmarked over recent weeks.

On the topic of travel, apparently sleep tourism is a thing. CNN reports on a growing trend in the hotel industry to promote their rooms as destinations for getting an optimum night’s rest. Premium beds, toiletries, pampering experiences – even sessions with sleep coaches – are on offer to tempt the weary traveller.

Somethings I look forward to when staying in a nice hotel are a large comfy bed and blackout curtains. But intentionally visiting a retreat or guesthouse in order to get a good sleep may set up unrealistic expectations. And according to The Guardian, trying too hard to get to sleep is the worst thing you can do. Falling asleep is a passive process and worrying about it will only keep us awake. Which is hardly news to insomnia sufferers, who are well used to the vicious circle of worry – poor sleep – worry about poor sleep – worse sleep – more worry…

Taking the prize for the oddest sleep aid I’ve seen in ever is the Ostrich Pillow from Amazon. Possibly designed for sleeping while travelling (as opposed to sleep tourism) rather than the office sofa, it will hopefully make you sleep so soundly you won’t care what a dill you look.

While we love to pretend that Covid is over, apparently the pandemic – and the disruption that shut-downs and stay-at-home orders caused to our daily schedules – is still affecting our sleep and contributing to insomnia. This Time article follows the well-worn route of blaming us for our slack schedules and poor sleep habits, without considering that maybe worrying about getting sick, losing our jobs, home-schooling our kids and safeguarding our elderly parents while the Government showed itself spectacularly ill-prepared to manage a health crisis just might have had something to do with it.

Finally, Vox tempts us with the subversive suggestion that we can still take an afternoon nap and muck about on our phones in bed and not ruin our sleep. I didn’t find anything particularly new here – the answer is moderation, apparently. But the article is noteworthy for the fact that it actually acknowledges that societal not just personal factors affect sleep, and many of them are outside our control. A couple of quotes:

Sleep deprivation is, ultimately, a systemic issue, and people shouldn’t feel broken for the societal issues impacting sleep.

…if [some] solutions are not feasible for you because of space, finances, or work, it is not your fault. Our built environment’s negative impact on sleep is not on you to fix.

The societal factors they list include the neighbours’ bright lights, shift work, caring for children and snoring partners. While this is hardly exhaustive, let’s hope this starts a trend of popular articles on sleep that acknowledge it’s not all about (poor) personal choices. A poorly designed society has a big role to play.

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Sleep in the news: sleep and health

I’m beginning a semi-regular series of brief descriptions and links to articles on sleep (and sleep justice) in the news.

The Conversation logo.
The Conversation logo.

Here we have two interesting articles on The Conversation, both of which speak to the importance of sleep for physical and mental health.

Firstly, a researcher at the University of Birmingham has found that having frequent nightmares in mid-life is a good predictor of future dementia. That’s enough to give you bad dreams in itself.

Secondly, a study at Liverpool John Moores University suggests that quality sleep can protect against a range of respiratory illnesses, including Covid-19. The research found that good sleep was more important than sleep duration for boosting immunity.

All this raises a very important question: does sleep cause these benefits directly or are they colloraries of other personal and sociological factors?

For example, it’s not too far-fetched to assume that people who regularly experience good sleep are likely to already enjoy good health. They probably also eat well and have adequate housing, decent work, social support, opportunities to exercise and all the things that make for a relatively stable and satisfying life. Equally, middle-aged people who have regular nightmares may well suffer from anxiety due to money or career worries, concern over ageing and decreased health and fitness, or life-stage issues such as caring for elderly parents or approaching retirement.

It’s interesting that the article on sleep and respiratory health concludes with a list of ways to improve your sleep. They are all traditional “sleep hygiene” tips: none of them consider the role of wider sociological or environmental factors – the focus of my research.

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A messy problem

The seed of an idea was planted – that of formulating some kind of design research project.

Before anything else, I decided to visually map the problem space that Prof White described in his article – the various causes and effects surrounding what I’d begun to call sleep justice. I also wanted to include an area that Prof White hadn’t touched on: as well as supporting sleep-eroding work practices, capitalism also promotes leisure choices that seek to monopolise and monetise our down time.

Social media, games and other addictive technologies in our pockets and on our wrists; 24 hour shopping, whether online or in-person; round the clock food delivery; endless streaming of music or video. Our relaxing has become has exhausting as our labour and just as damaging for our sleep and our wellbeing.

Trying to make sense of this maze of causes and effects resulted in the following diagram:

A first attempt at making sense of the problem of sleep justice.

The next step was to brainstorm some possible ways that design could be used to intervene, and start to put them in categories:

How could design be used to promote change?

In separating these initial ideas into two columns, I’m not suggesting one is better than the other. If a person has acute insomnia, they need something that will start working asap and effectively address their symptoms. But that’s where so many current interventions stop. What’s needed are solutions that recognise the social and economic causes of sleep injustice and promote long-term structural change.

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