Research Blog

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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