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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, notetaking 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 bedrooms and suggests ways to improve your sleep.

Being bored is supposed to send up to sleep. So The Guardian lists the best podcast 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 terms for a better night’s sleep. Every night for two weeks she tries a different technique. Playing late night video games does not help. 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?

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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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In the beginning

In March this year it was my turn to find material for my weekly Zoom reading group. We usually read books but this time we wanted to break things up with something shorter. I trawled some favourite online magazines and came up with this:

Being underslept and out of sync is a political injustice, by Jonathan White, published in Aeon, 22 March 2022.

Screenshot: Aeon magazine

As I messaged the other group members:

It’s a little left field but fascinating and a great model of connecting the dots between politics and various bits of life.

To summarise, Prof Jonathan White argues that contemporary capitalism steals people’s sleep, and steals it unequally, so that some people benefit from others’ deprivation. This is a radical change from the dominant narrative which frames poor sleep as an individual issue to be addressed on an individual basis: I’m anxious, so I need to take sleeping pills; I stay up too late, so I should practice better sleep hygiene habits. Underneath this lies the assumption that poor sleep is the result of unwise choices by lazy, weak-willed individuals unsuited to thriving (or even surviving) under capitalism. Instead, White argues that sleep loss is the direct result of capitalism’s efforts to extract ever increasing value from people’s working hours: shift work, the gig-economy, remote work, etc.

The article sparked something. As I (rather gushingly) emailed the author a couple of weeks later:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything as eye-opening and genuinely thought provoking… I so enjoyed the way you systematically and sympathetically drew out the threads of a wicked problem that I hadn’t realised existed.

In his Aeon piece, which was based on a longer more scholarly article in the Journal of Political Philosophy, White reframes poor sleep as a political issue, a social justice issue and – crucially for me – a design issue. As he puts it:

Holding individuals responsible for collective problems is generally a bad idea… More promising is to ask whether existing societies might be redesigned in ways that serve circadian justice… [my bold].

Now there’s a question!

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