Health Society

The True Cause of the Sleeplessness Epidemic

‘No sooner did sleep become a tool for capitalism than sleep deprivation became its weapon’

For $149, a company called Hello will sell you Sense, a two-and-a-half-inch, machine-tooled orb that watches you while you sleep. Tracking room temperature and other data through the night, the device awards you a “sleep score” between 0 and 100, based on how well you rested. You can then boost your rating by following certain tips and best practices, like shelling out for a humidifier or fiddling with the thermostat. It’s not clear how much this element of gamification helps you drift off, but Hello’s numbers are certainly on the rise: Founder James Proud, a protégé of Peter Thiel, has raised more than $40 million in funding, and garnered admiring profiles from the likes of Forbes and Business Insider.

Sense, and a host of apps and biobehavioral doodads like it, are the vanguard of a vast new industry that promises a better-rested future. From meditation apps to glasses that prevent screen-induced eye strain to green tea lotions, this brave new world of sleep products ranges from new age to high-tech and back again. Arianna Huffington, in her latest iteration, has emerged as a sleep guru, preaching that Americans are trapped in a “sleep crisis”—one that can conveniently be ameliorated by following the steps outlined in her book The Sleep Revolution or buying products (eye masks, pajamas, microbiome-analysis kits, light bulbs that imitate a sunrise) from Thrive Global, her wellness startup.

Such companies find a primed market. Up to 70 million Americans suffer from some form of sleep disorder, and millions more self-medicate with booze, drugs, meditation, diets, or elaborate hygiene regimens. Offices are strewn with Red Bulls, coffee machines, and (when budgets allow) the occasional napping pod. We complain about sleeplessness in the same way we complain about how busy we are: as a signal of our success and engagement with society.

The less sleep we get, the more it has come to mean. As the new sleep industry has flourished, so has a whole field of study, dedicated to the culture surrounding sleep. Countless new books, relying on the language of efficiency and hacking, analyze the “sleep paradox” and “smarter sleep.” In 2015, the mattress startup Casper launched a magazine about sleep, titled Van Winkle’s, and there is hardly a lifestyle publication in America for which sleep isn’t a staple subject.

What all this thinking tends to ignore is that our current sleep dysfunction is not a glitch, a minor bump in the smooth running of a success-oriented society, but an inextricable part of our working lives. If millions are experiencing a crisis of sleep, it reflects a full-scale unraveling, a crisis centuries in the making.

It wasn’t always this way. Sleep as we know it—along with many of its disorders—is a relatively recent development. For most of human history, sleep was social, Benjamin Reiss argues in Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World, a new cultural and anthropological examination of sleep through the ages. It was “generally distributed in several chunks throughout the day and night” and it varied to fit into the changing of the seasons and of daily life. People slept longer in winter to conserve energy, and between short bouts of sleep there was time to have sex, pray, or socialize. Don Quixote could satisfy himself with one short spell, but his companion Sancho Panza slumbered much longer, spending “from night to morning” in uninterrupted repose.

Just as different cultures developed distinct notions of family and hospitality, they fostered different sleep rituals. Among the Asabano people of Papua New Guinea, it is polite, even an honor, to offer to sleep in the same bed or room as a guest. Co-sleeping offers protection, warmth, and comfort. In other contexts, though, co-sleeping can feel threatening: Homeless shelters, Reiss notes, are often loud and dangerous, with people coming and going at all hours, many of them suffering from untreated mental illness. And since co-sleeping can also contribute to the spread of disease, the practice eventually came to be associated, at least in the United States, with the very poor and destitute. “Massive group sleep was really only for the neglected or unwanted members of society,” Reiss writes.

During the Industrial Revolution, a new kind of “sleep dogma” took hold, one immediately recognizable to many Westerners today. The new “sleep norms” included “sleeping in private” and “consolidating one’s sleep at night”—the eight hours we now think of as a gold standard for proper rest. Children were trained to “reproduce these norms,” and those who couldn’t learn to sleep this way were diagnosed as medical exceptions. Society began to hum to the carefully managed timetables of factories, offices, schools, and militaries. Civilized people now rose early in the morning, labored during the day, and slept at night—customs that served to create “hearty, autonomous, self-willed adults who could march off confidently into the workforce” and toil more productively.

No development was more consequential than the advent of electric lighting, which finally severed sleep from its place in the cycle of day and night, and created new opportunities for socializing and working after dark. Cafés could stay open late; factories could operate 24 hours. Streetlights opened roads and other public spaces to recreation, especially for the lower classes. A radical restructuring was underway, as the rhythms of nature gave way to those of commerce, transport, and other capitalist imperatives. If electric lighting allowed cities to hum at all hours of the day, it also made them louder, amenable to activity but not to rest. Sleep became routinized, light turned into a pollutant, and the modern age of sleeplessness began.

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June 2017
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