Showing posts with label sleep. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sleep. Show all posts

Monday, November 19, 2012

Insomnia? Or evolution?

Should variations in human sleep be targeted for medical interventions?
Cross-posted with the Day In, Day Out series at Psychology Today

Some thoughts on treating dleep maintenance insomnia (when you wake up a few hours after going to bed and cannot get back to sleep).


BY MATTHEW J. WOLF-MEYER

Something woke you up in the middle of the night. The tug of the need to urinate? A bedpartner’s jerky limb? A loud noise? A startling dream? Whatever it was, the event passes as you bring yourself to unsteady consciousness. You lay in the dark for a few minutes — for what seems like a few minutes — deciding whether or not you’re going to get out of bed, if even to go to the bathroom quickly. After another minute of lying in the dark, your bladder has convinced you to go to the bathroom — maybe then you’ll be able to get back to sleep. But once you’re in the bathroom, you know it’s all over. You’re awake. You hadn’t even turned on the lights for fear that doing so would make returning to sleep impossible, but as you fumble in the dark, you know that night has come to an end and your day is starting very early.

The experience is generally referred to as sleep maintenance insomnia. It is characterized by being able to fall asleep when one wants to, but awakening in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation and drug manufacturers, millions of Americans experience sleep maintenance insomnia on a regular basis. From the perspective of modern science and medicine — and society more generally — this is disorderly sleep. If you wake up after four hours and stay up until the following night, you aren’t getting the amount of sleep you need in order to get through the day. Yet from the perspective of history, being unable to get back to sleep immediately might have everything to do with human evolution.

Humans may have evolved to sleep in a biphasic or non-consolidated fashion, that is, we may be physiologically inclined to sleep in two or more periods over the 24-hour day. We have unambiguous evidence that in pre-industrial Britain and the United States — so before 1840 — that people slept in two periods at night. They would lay down to sleep around sunset or shortly thereafter, wake up around four hours later for a couple of hours, and then sleep again for a few more hours. Today, despite pressures to stop doing so from some quarters, napping cultures thrive in southern Europe, China, Taiwan and elsewhere — people sleep for several hours at night and supplement this sleep with a hefty nap during the day, upwards of two hours.

Sleep is comprised of a series of cycles, which last about two hours for most people. During each cycle, we move through non-Rapid Eye Movement and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. At the end of each cycle, we move towards wakefulness, and this is when people often wake up. When we wake up in the middle of a cycle — due to an alarm clock or emergency — we often feel terrible throughout the day, struggling with an unresolved sleep cycle. (Incidentally, there are now alarm clocks that detect your progression through a sleep cycle and wake you up at just the right time.) When we think about this from the perspective of evolution, waking up every couple of hours to check your environment is a pretty useful adaptation — sleeping deeply through the night puts one at risk of nocturnal predators. But modern society favors consolidated sleep, so those of us who still sleep as our ancestors did are at risk of being diagnosed with sleep maintenance insomnia.

There aren’t any drawbacks to sleeping in a less consolidated fashion. Some evidence suggests that the grogginess we experience upon awakening is lessened and that we wake up more easily when we sleep for shorter periods. But society is structured around consolidated sleep — as I discuss in The Slumbering Masses, very few employers offer onsite napping facilities — and spending 12 to 14 hours in bed each night would cut into work and family time. And so, even though biphasic sleep might work for us physiologically, it might not work so well socially.

This is why sleep maintenance insomnia is treated as a sleep disorder and not normal human variation: it’s disruptive to society. It can be a nuisance to individuals as well — being chronically sleep-deprived can lead to serious social and health problems — but it wouldn’t be such a nuisance to individuals if society was set up to allow for people to sleep the ways they want to. American sleep patterns are more indebted to our ideas about the workday and school day than any basis in human nature or evolution. Some sleep disorders are serious and benefit from medical attention. But people who experience sleep maintenance insomnia might benefit more from a midday nap than a pharmaceutical fix or a large coffee. It’s up to us all to think about how society might better reflect our needs for sleep — to invent social arrangements that benefit us rather than pharmaceutical companies and the corner Starbucks.

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Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. He blogs regularly here, and is currently writing a series of blog posts for Psychology Today.

"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past 




Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How natural is human sleep?

Coming to terms with American expectations of normal sleep.
Cross-posted with the Day In, Day Out blog series at Psychology Today


Matthew Wolf-Meyer gives a brief overview of the history of sleep and its common misunderstandings.
 

BY MATTHEW J. WOLF-MEYER

You’re sitting at your desk, slowly reading through your response to a friend’s email, when you feel the sudden tug of sleepiness. The next thing you know, you’re waking up with your head on the desk, your hands folded under you in a makeshift pillow. Or, you're riding on the train, playing a game on your iPhone, when the next thing you know you’re waking up and reaching under your seat to fish for your phone. You haven’t been napping long, so hopefully nobody noticed. Maybe it’s just incidental sleepiness – you haven’t been sleeping well lately – but it happens with more and more regularity. Maybe it’s time to see a doctor about it?

Over the last decade or so, Americans have become more and more aware of sleep and its disorders. One way to think about this change in public awareness is that it’s due to the new recognition of sleep disorders – that science has discovered new pathologies, their causes, and cures. This might appear to be the case with narcolepsy, the sudden onset of sleep, often associated with momentary heightened emotions, which has been diagnosed more commonly since the 1970s. In fact, we’ve had a reasonably well-articulated sense of narcolepsy since the 1820s, thanks to Scottish physician Robert Macnish, who described it as ‘drowsiness’ in his Philosophy of Sleep. We still don’t really know what causes narcolepsy, but we do have treatments for it that are reasonably well tolerated by narcoleptics. And this might be the reason why we’re paying so much more attention to sleep these days: changes in pharmaceuticals. But that’s not strictly true either, since throughout history we’ve have suitable if not wholly effective treatments for a number of sleep disorders – we just prefer pharmaceuticals to changes in lifestyle these days. Rather, our heightened interest in sleep has everything to do with our disconnection from history and the many changes that American sleep and society have gone through over the last two centuries, which make a lot of phenomena seem new, when we’ve been living with them for centuries.

About a year ago, I was on a conference panel with a laboratory scientist who specializes in developing technology for the assessment of sleep disorders; he gave a presentation on the state of the art in sleep science and medicine, a talk designed for his audience, which was largely comprised of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Meanwhile, I gave a presentation focused on a minor event in the history of sleep science, an experiment led by Nathaniel Kleitman, then a professor of physiology at the University of Chicago, aboard a U.S. Navy submarine to ascertain the ideal arrangement of sleep while at sea (which I discuss in my book, The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life). During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked my co-panelist about changes in scientific conceptions of sleep, to which he answered – and I’m paraphrasing here – ‘That’s not my job, it’s yours.’

I’ve heard similar sentiments from scientists and physicians before. They’re busy on the frontline, dealing with the demands of patients, writing grants, and conducting their own research, and don’t have the time to do investigative social research. At one conference where I was talking about the history of the sleepwalking defense for murder cases in the U.S., I saw more audience members – scientists, physicians and other medical professionals – take more notes on my quick discussion of the history of narcolepsy than on the changing conceptions of intent in American law, both of which one cannot fully appreciate without understanding the U.S. in the 19th century.

One of the things social scientists are especially good at is debunking things that we’ve come to accept as natural. This process is often referred to as denaturalization – showing how what we take to be natural is the result of a history of human action that has moved something from being understood as social to natural. One of the cases I discuss at length in my book is that of consolidated sleep in the U. S. The eight hours of sleep so many of us seek out each night is not based in nature, but instead is the invention of many doctors, scientists, and business owners, and began in the 19th century to only be fully realized in the 20th.

Previous to the mid-1800s, many Americans slept in what’s referred to as biphasic fashion. That is, they would fall asleep around dusk, wake up a few hours later for a couple hours, and then sleep for a few more hours before waking around sunrise. Or, they would sleep for a few hours at night and a few more during the day. We have evidence of this in England, thanks to historian Roger Ekirch, and, as I discuss in The Slumbering Masses, American medical literature in the 19th century is full of references to these kinds of sleep patterns. When you think about it, our nights are often much longer than eight hours, so even if our sleep is determined by our environments, we would assume that humans would sleep much more than they do; instead, humans need less than a full night’s sleep as reckoned by the sun. We need somewhere between 6-10 hours each night, a figure that changes over the life course, with children and adolescents needing more and the elderly needing less. How we manage to get that sleep is up to us, or, rather, it’s often up to social norms.

In the U.S., we tend to prefer nightly, consolidated sleep – eight straight hours, with no nap during the day. For preschoolers it might be different, with longer nightly sleep and naps to boot. But, elsewhere and over the course of history, sleep arrangements have been different. In their efforts to understand biological phenomena, scientists can sometimes substitute what they believe for scientifically deduced fact. This is the case with American models of sleep, where early researchers in the 20th century used the consolidated model of nightly sleep for the basis of their scientific research. If they had used different models – say models that favor biphasic sleep – contemporary sleep science and medicine might look a lot different than they currently do.

Social scientists then, and cultural anthropologists especially, work hard to denature the facts that have come to be taken for granted – by scientists and the public. Critique of this sort is important for a number of reasons. First, it serves as a corrective when beliefs come to be taken as facts. Secondly, it opens up science to be a dialogue. When science is only happening in labs, it’s liable to be susceptible to the biases of researchers and the expediencies of grants, publication and promotion – hence the recent increased awareness about the prevalence of fraud in scientific publishing. And, most importantly, it infuses science with the lived experiences of individuals – which is why we do science in the first place: to make our individual and collective lives better. So when we take scientific fact as the basis of our lives – whether it be something we read on the internet or a pill we’re prescribed – we should always consider whether it helps us make sense of our life. And if it doesn’t, we should keep looking for answers. Some of those answers might be found in history or in other societies, where we might come to see that our sleep hasn’t always been what it is or that we might arrange our days and nights differently. This isn’t so much debunking science as helping bring it to life.

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Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. He blogs regularly here, and is currently writing a series of blog posts for Psychology Today.

"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past 


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

School start times: Why so rigid?

BY MATTHEW J. WOLF-MEYER
Assistant professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz


Over the past thirty years, there’s been a mounting body of evidence regarding changes in long-term sleep needs. Infants need a lot of sleep; children less so; adolescents need more; and adults, less, until our later years, when many require even less sleep.

So over the life course, it’s perfectly normal to sleep as much as twelve hours (even more for infants) and as little as four in a day. Along with these changes in sleep needs are changes in the time of sleep onset: as infants, most of us fall asleep earlier than we will as teenagers or adults; in our later years, we’ll wake up well before we do as children or adults. Sometimes we think about these differences in our sleep as pathological and seek out medical help, especially adults who start sleeping less than they used to, who often complain of insomnia despite feeling well rested.

But before we’re adults, we’re often at the mercy of other people’s interpretations of our sleep. And no one has a harder time garnering respect for their sleep needs than teenagers.

As a teenager, I started high school at 7:30 a.m. (yep, Rochester Adams still hasn’t changed its start time since then.) I would often get to sleep around 11 p.m. or later – not because I was playing video games or texting, which didn’t exist in 1991, but because my circadian cue for sleep onset was later than it had been when I was a child. I would have to wake up around 6:30 a.m. to be to school on time, which often meant that I was sleeping 6 or fewer hours each night. I don’t think I remember anything from my first two periods throughout high school. I would sleepwalk through my morning and "wake up" around midday. I would often nap in the afternoon. And still my daily sleep wouldn’t add up to nine or more hours.

There’s a nice piece on the CBC about experiments with changing school start times that includes an interview with the principal of the Canadian schools involved. It reviews the science of adolescent sleep, which shows that sleep onset at adolescence is later – sometimes as late as 11 p.m. or midnight. Alongside that later onset is a need for greater sleep, on average ten hours each night. The school day for students participating in this program runs from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., no shorter than for those peers who start at 8 a.m. or earlier. And there’s some anecdotal evidence that it improves grades and attendance. What’s most interesting about the story – as is so often the case – is the comments. Adults weighing in on this change in start times refer to teenagers as lazy, point to their distraction by media technologies and lack of daily labor, and generally dismiss the science of sleep.

Was I just lazy as a teenager?
Are today’s teenagers more easily distracted away from sleep with the proliferation of media technologies?

The science says no. But why might adults be so rigid in their thinking about the social obligation of the school day? Many commenters on the CBC article fall into a slippery slope fallacy, assuming that today’s "lazy" teenagers will be tomorrow’s "lazy" workers and demand that work times shift to later in the day as well. The science doesn’t point to the need to change our work days – though there have been some movements towards flextime and workplace napping – but many of the adult commenters don’t even appear to buy the premise that sleep needs change throughout the life course.

As I discuss at length in The Slumbering Masses, the basis of modern school start times lies in the 19th century, when public schools were developed to care for the children of day laborers—meanwhile, the elite would send their children to boarding schools. The school day developed alongside the industrial workday to allow parents to drop off their children while they worked. There’s nothing natural about it—it isn’t based on some agrarian past where we were more in balance with nature. Instead, it had everything to do with the need to fill factories with able-bodied adults from dawn until dusk and to keep their children busy. Only slowly did this change, as American work schedules changed. Now science can support the organization of our daily obligations – or at least support the advocacy for more flexible institutions, that take things like variations in sleep need seriously.

But why be so rigid in thinking about teenagers being lazy and school start times being just fine as they are?

One of the things that comes through in the comments to the CBC story is that many adults feel as if they did just fine in high school, and that today’s youth should be just fine as well. In one commenter’s language, changing school start times amounts to "molly coddling" teenagers and playing into their entitlement. High school, it seems, is hazing for entry into the "real" world of adulthood, emblematized by work. While this is surely part of what school is intended to do – it models the demands of the workday with deadlines and expectations of outcomes – it is primarily intended to produce competent citizens. If changing the start time to slightly later in the day leads to more engaged citizens and more capable workers, shouldn’t we change our school days?

More insidious and less obvious is that many people have come to think of our social arrangements of time as being based in some innate human nature. If we accept the basic premise that sleep changes over the life course, that alone would nullify any standard of time usage. But many people tend to rely on small sample sizes to think about what’s natural and what’s not; just because modern social formations work for you – or seem to – doesn’t mean that they’re natural or that they work for everyone. How many cups of coffee do you drink each day? Or how much caffeinated soda? Have you eaten a snack today to offset sleepiness? Or taken a nap? Could you have gotten through your day a little easier if you slept in an extra hour?

There’s nothing natural about alarm clocks. And many sleep researchers and physicians would say that they’re one of the worst things for good sleep. But we use them anyway. Maybe it’s time we start to take the science of sleep a little more seriously and begin to rethink how we want our days to be organized. If we could be happier and healthier workers and students, it’s worth the investment in change and thinking past our expectations of nature and norms.

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Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, available in October 2012 from University of Minnesota Press. He blogs regularly here.

"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past 


Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the evolution of sleep

We are not biologically programmed to rest a full night of consolidated sleep. In fact,
some societies favor shorter periods of sleep, during both the day and night.
Image via Creative Commons.


BY MATTHEW J. WOLF-MEYER
Assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz


Have humans evolved to sleep in a consolidated, nightly fashion, or is this some kind of social construct that we’ve fallen into?

There’s a nice write up on the evolution of diurnal behavior in humans by Cris Campbell, in which he uses my recent article in Current Anthropology to think about the relationships between economy, society, and sleep. I’m no hardline social constructionist by any means, but I’m sometimes concerned that evolutionary approaches to sleep can be fairly reductive. And one of the dangers of being biologically – and naturally – reductive is that we can come to accept things like American capitalism as the natural outgrowth of a particular pattern of human behavior (which I write about extensively in The Slumbering Masses). Some kind of middle road between biology and society is necessary to really see how sleep is shaped by social demands and how it impacts our biological well-being.

It sounds so reasonable, but it can come across as radical when I tell people that there’s no absolute human nature that determines our individual and collective actions, which is the basis of my argument in that Current Anthropology piece.

Rather than thinking of nature and nurture as absolute determinants of our behavior, it’s more appropriate to think of any individual behavior or social form as existing on a continuum between nature and nurture. That is, everything is somewhat natural and somewhat cultural (and sometimes, what we say is natural is actually cultural). Sleep is a great example of this: yes, we all have a natural, physiological urge to sleep, but how each person – and each society – organizes sleep varies, based on cultural norms and individual preferences. For some, this can mean nightly, consolidated sleep in an eight-hour chunk; for others, it might mean biphasic sleep – breaking sleep into two (or more) blocks of sleep, arranged throughout the 24-hour day. So our sleep styles might have developed out of evolutionary selection. Or it might be a little more complicated.

Biological anthropologists agree that niche construction can often interfere with (for better or worse) the process of evolution. Roughly, they mean that organisms of all sorts (including humans) can change their environments to maximize the possibility of their survival – think beavers building dams, which changes local ecology for the beavers as well as for the other animals, insects, and plants that are part of that environment. Humans, the usual argument goes, are niche constructors without parallel, having built complex societies, agricultural infrastructure, and cities. The assumption in much of the niche construction literature is that niches are positive – at least for the constructor. But humans may be able to build niches that are actually unhealthy for us. If humans had evolved to be biphasic sleepers, our pattern of consolidated activity throughout the day might be a very good example of a niche gone wrong.

The niche that Americans have built slowly, over the last 200 years, is one that consolidates our daily activities into one block in the day (say the 9-to-5 work schedule, alongside the 8-to-3 school schedule), followed by a period of recreation – usually taken up by dinner and nightly television – to be followed by our consolidated sleep. All of which begins again the following day. This kind of niche isn’t a byproduct of some inner nature, but rather a piecemeal construction that we’ve invested in over centuries of social development. And, if we look elsewhere, there are other models – including societies that favor biphasic or daytime sleep.

If we’ve developed a social structure based on our evolutionary desires for sleep, we could expect to generally not feel sleepy throughout the day and rarely see cases of insomnia. Because 30-40% of Americans claim to experience insomnia symptoms with some regularity, and because there’s a booming industry in alertness-promoting chemicals (Provigil, coffee, soda, tea, energy drinks, etc.), it would appear that our niche doesn’t really meet our needs. At its most benign, it might mean that we consume more caffeine than we should; but it might also be that the niche we’ve built is incredibly difficult for many to conform to, leading to experiences of sleep disorders.

There are at least two dangers in assuming our contemporary social structure is based on our evolutionary preferences. First, as I mentioned earlier, it naturalizes things like capitalism as inevitable outcomes of our selected-for behavior. Second, it means that disorderly sleepers aren’t just pathological and in need of treatment, but rather in need of evolutionary aberrations or throwbacks. That might sound silly, but similar ideas have been the basis for racism throughout history; as genomics provides a basis for our understandings of ourselves and others, we might also be facing a future of gene-based discrimination, not entirely different from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (which I also mention in that Current Anthropology piece).

Now, it may be that through this niche construction, we are slowly selecting against people who don’t sleep in accordance with it -- but with such a large, complex society, that’s unlikely to happen. One neurologist I know once said that our brains work best with a cup of coffee in our system. It’s a strange fantasy to imagine that we evolved over time through the selection of individuals who respond well to caffeine. Rather, it’s an accidental correlation between our physiologies and our lifestyles that leads us to really thrive on caffeine (for those of us who do).

It’s a lot safer to recognize that evolution isn’t purposeful in all of its selections; some selections are accidents, although they can be beneficial. What we can select are the social models that govern our lives, and other models are possible, as organizations like the Take Back Your Time movement have advocated for. And what we should be working toward are social forms that meet the needs of all sleepers, not some or even most. Recognizing that society can be different – and more flexible – also accepts that variation within the human species is non-pathological, and that there might be better ways to think about difference than as disorderly.

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Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, available in October 2012 from University of Minnesota Press. He blogs regularly here.

"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past 

Friday, June 29, 2012

The benefits of sharing a bed -- with lovers, children, or dogs

Should you share your sleeping space with Fido?


















BY MATTHEW WOLF-MEYER
Assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz


Sure, sharing a bed can be a nuisance from time to time.

And spending the night in a hotel alone while traveling can be a vacation in itself.

But there’s been some recent attention paid to Wendy Troxel’s research with her colleagues on bed-sharing and its benefits, which builds on a decade of research on gender disparities in nightly sleep and who gets what out of sharing a bed with whom. The National Sleep Foundation conducted a survey a few years ago on women and sleep in the United States, and Jenny Hislop and Sara Arber have been conducting ongoing research on women’s sleep in the United Kingdom. A few years earlier, Paul Rosenblatt published a nice, qualitative book on couples’ experiences of sharing a bed, Two in a Bed. According to this varied data, women are more likely to experience symptoms of insomnia and disrupted sleep. It’s not that women are innately predisposed towards insomnia, but rather, according to research, that they’re more likely to be woken up in the middle of the night – to tend to the needs of a child, perhaps, or to be disrupted by their sleeping bed partner, say with a snore or an apnea event.

Infants and toddlers

Despite recurrent concerns about sharing a bed with infants and toddlers, there’s also a fair amount of research – mostly from James McKenna’s lab at Notre Dame – on the sleep-related benefits of sharing a bed: co-sleeping parents report getting up to 2 hours more sleep each night than their counterparts who place their kids in separate rooms. This is especially the case for young children, especially while they feed at night; as children age, the benefits of sharing sleeping space decrease. And recent interest in Troxel’s research has been related to her findings that sharing a bed can result in heightened levels of stress-reducing hormones, implying that one of the reasons why we sleep better together is a sense of security – which makes a certain amount of logical sense. If adults get benefits from sharing a bed, shouldn’t young ones receive the same benefits? As I talk about in my book, the fears about bed-sharing usually revolve around accidentally smothering a child, but what evidence there is shows that more children die alone in their cribs than in beds with parents. And for parents who are anxious about sharing a bed, there are all sorts of things to buy to ease their concerns. If you could get 2 more hours of sleep each night and ease your child’s anxiety – and your own – wouldn’t you want to?

Pets

My partner and I have often wondered about the benefits of sleeping with dogs (in part because our border collie-pit bull, Turtle, often shares a bed with us and we want to imagine that we get something out of it more than cramped legs). Does sharing a bed with a watchful canine help our sleep be less anxious in much the same way as sleeping with another adult? Following Donna Haraway’s long-standing interests in multi-species encounters and the mutual shaping of one another’s development, especially in the case of humans and canines, it seems sensible that having a dog we trust sleep nearby might alleviate our nightly need to be vigilant.

This all changes when we move indoors, and to bedrooms far removed from entry doors with locks and alarms, but for many contemporary societies and throughout history, it may be that our co-species investments in dogs have had a lot to do with our desire to sleep without having to keep one eye (or ear) open. A dog sharing a bed might be an alarm system, but in parts of the world where such vigilance isn’t quite so important, they may be a hindrance as much as a help – Turtle is more likely to wake us up when he hears deer in the yard than criminal activity, for example . . . and despite his concerns, the deer are no danger to us.

Couples

All of this follows up on a piece in the Star Tribune on couples that sleep in separate bedrooms. For some sleepers, being at odds a with partner’s sleep behaviors is fairly stressful; larks want to go to bed early, and owls want to go to sleep later. When they go to bed at the same time, owls can lie in bed awake while their lark partner fades off to sleep; and when the lark wakes up early, the owl might be roused by its partner’s activity. Or, larks that go to bed early might be awoken by a late-to-bed owl partner getting into bed. And despite a history of some couples sleeping in separate beds – if not separate rooms – as the article mentions, the marital bed looms large as a normative space that couples seek to inhabit together. This can cause all sorts of tension, but maybe the benefits are worth it.

But if you plan on sharing a bed with a partner, a toddler and a dog (or two), investing in a king-sized bed might become a necessity.

Technology

We don’t always have the option to populate our beds with our kin, and for sleep apnics who sleep with their CPAP and BiPAP machines, they don’t have the option to not populate their beds with machines. For some, as I talk about in The Slumbering Masses, this unwanted bed-sharing can be its own source of stress and tension. What sharing a bed requires – and this is fundamental to sharing a bed with a partner, a child, a pet, or a machine – is some kind of intimate investment.

Sharing a bed with someone or some thing we are anxious about isn’t particularly restful. And when our beds become sites of anxiety and stress, we’re likely to not enjoy going to or staying in bed – regardless of the high-tech features of our chosen beds.

Outside of the bathroom, our beds are one of our most intimate spaces. Who and what we sleep with say as much about ourselves as our relationships in the world.

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Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, available in October 2012 from University of Minnesota Press. He blogs regularly at nequalsone.wordpress.com.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Is a good night's sleep legitimately possible?

Sleep: It might traditionally be relegated to the twilight hours.
But that doesn't mean it has to be.



BY MATTHEW WOLF-MEYER
Assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz


Slate & Survey Monkey just published the results of a poll on sleep, most of which is pretty innocuous. The two findings that work pretty well together -- from my perspective -- are those on average time of length asleep (respondents come in around 7 hours or less -- some 65% are between 6-7 hours nightly) and the non-use of pharmaceuticals (~62% say they never use pharmaceuticals).

When you put these two findings together, they pretty much prove that our consolidated sleep patterns are the result of regular, daily fatigue. That is, when people sleep in unconsolidated fashion (like nightly sleep and a nap -- which Slate unfortunately didn't ask about), they're less likely to be fatigued at the end of the day; that is, when you get to take a nap midday, you aren't quite as exhausted when you finally get to bed at 10-11 PM. When you don't get that nap -- when you need 8 or more hours of sleep to be well rested and only get 6-7 -- by the time you get to bed at night, you're totally wiped out. Of course you don't need pharmaceuticals to help you sleep when you're that exhausted. I write about this both in ​The Slumbering Masses, but also in a historical article on the invention of modern sleep. And, Roger Ekirch has a lot to say about it in pre-industrial Britain.

What's maybe most important to note about all of this is that, at least according to William Dement, the father of American sleep medicine, this fatigue is totally necessary to get a good night's sleep. Dement suggests that unless we get to bed with a little fatigue in us, a consolidated night's sleep is hard to come by. One might rightly ask if that's the kind of sleep we want, when exhaustion is its motor. Maybe some other model of sleep would do us better?

There's been some recent interest in things like workplace naps, but the secondary literature on this shows that often it's cloaked in pro-worker sentiment, but ultimately in the service of employers. That is, when people nap at work they tend to work longer since they aren't so tired when the end of the work day rolls around. So maybe that isn't the answer. There's also a fair amount of research at this point that flextime is both only good for the managerial class, and that it's underused, since people are afraid of seeming lazy or delinquent to their co-workers. So that might not be the answer either. Maybe shorter work and school days would solve the problem of not enough sleep?

I'm a full subscriber to the goldfish theory of labor, i.e., labor will expand to fill any container that you give it, much like a goldfish will grow to its environment. Shrink the work and school days, and people will find a way to get as much work and learning done, they just won't have to spend so much time in their institution. This might mean that work and school demands creep into family life -- but they're already there. If we can be more efficient and stress-free working and schooling with our families and friends, it might also mean that we get more done and have more time to play. And have more time to sleep at night.

The dangerous side of this less institutional work and school is that they'll both take up more and more time -- like I'm doing right now as I write this, work can come to expand in all sorts of ways. But given that how we balance our lives has increasingly been a 'devil take the hindmost' situation in relation to our institutional demands, maybe it's time to push back on our institutions a bit and leave the development of that balance up to us, as workers and students. There are other ways to arrange our days, and we just need to think creatively and sensitively about our needs.

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Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, available in October 2012 from University of Minnesota Press.