The Sleep Crisis, Sleep Science, and Sleep as an Act of Resistance

The Sleep Crisis, Sleep Science, and Sleep as an Act of Resistance
  • 2023-24

Are we as a society going through a sleep crisis? To what extent does sleep deprivation represent a threat to individuals – children in particular – and to the health of society as a whole? 

There is evidence that concern about lack of sleep has been an issue since the late Middle Ages, but we have never been so conscious of its effects on health, its impact on concentration, mood, memory, depression, and never before have we been exposed to so many stimuli encouraging us to stay awake.

Failure to sleep builds up a sleep debt. It is hard to pay back that debt in practice because catching up at the weekend for sleep lost during working days tends not to work.

Sleep has a rich vocabulary and a broad set of idioms associated with it, such as taking ‘forty winks’, ‘hitting the sack’, getting some ‘shut-eye’, ‘napping’, having a ‘doze’ or a ‘snooze’.

It has an equally rich representation in myth, literature and the arts, often mixed with the idea of dreams.

From the Roman God Somnus to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, through the Romantic poets, and the tales of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland, sleeping and dreaming are firmly established themes in our cultural heritage.

Sigmund Freud interpreted dreams as revealing secret or buried fears and desires, as depicted in Henry Fuseli’s disturbing painting The Nightmare below. Fellow psychologist Carl Jung theorised that sleep and dreaming helped to tap into a collective unconscious.

As for music, the Harvard Sleep Lab revealed that lullabies are universally calming (slowing the heart rate). Interestingly, this remains true even when children are exposed to lullabies from different cultures and in different languages. Infants find lullabies uniformly soothing.

At the same time, a lullaby slowed down has become a favourite trope of horror films, the rhythms turning sinister and scary. Researchers link this to the fact that immediately following a lullaby the lights are switched off, and this is when fear begins to stir. 

Early sleep scientists led by Nathaniel Kleitman in 1938 found by measuring brain activity and rapid eye movement (REM) that humans do not easily adapt to different Circadian rhythms or sleeping schedules.

The team experimented with different cycles but subjects became disorientated when daily rhythms were extended or reduced by more than four hours, partly explaining the phenomenon of jet lag.

Of course, environmental cues such as sunrise and sunset can determine this, but the results were similar when the experiment was conducted underground. It seems humans really do have a biological clock.

Sleep is not just a personal or medical issue, it is also a societal one, and lack of sleep has been proved to cause car crashes and industrial accidents.

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger is the most spectacular example. The Commission investigating the tragedy found that sleep deprivation among NASA scientists led to poor decision-making and directly contributed to the disaster.  

One of Christopher Nolan’s early films, Insomnia starring Al Pacino, illustrates the fog that envelops a detective when he suffers from chronic lack of sleep, compromising his judgement when he needs to make life-and-death decisions.

Unsurprisingly it is the marginalised in society who suffer most. The poor and people of colour are the most likely to be sleep-deprived. They also tend disproportionately to be those working at night and very early in the mornings. There is a kind of racial injustice to sleep-deprivation.

It has long been known that it is during sleep that children grow. This is because the human growth hormone peaks at night.

The Sleep Scientist Mary Caskadon looked into the commonly-held assumption that younger children need more sleep than teenagers. She found in fact that the opposite is true. Teenagers need more sleep!

She also established the fact that teenagers naturally sleep later in the morning and perform optimally by waking later in the day – research that has yet to translate into later school start times. 

So what makes for a good night’s sleep? How do we stop feeling constantly exhausted?

Physical factors such as sleep posture, the quality of a mattress and the pillow can all have an impact.

Other strategies include getting plenty of exercise and fresh air; having a healthy diet; avoiding caffeine - present in coffee, tea, Coca Cola, Red Bull; avoiding tobacco, which also operates as a stimulus, and avoiding sleeping in an over-heated room. Cooler environments are better for sleep.

Relaxing at the end of the day is also important. Stopping work and spending time unwinding, perhaps watching TV, reading, or chatting with a friend, are all ways of helping to reduce feelings of stress before we sleep.

There are pharmaceutical solutions in the form of sleeping pills, but these can have side effects such as drowsiness. They can only offer a short-term solution.

Other non-pharmaceutical solutions include Richard Bootzin’s six-rule formulation published in the 1970s, which has proved enduringly popular and effective.

1.      Only use the bed for sleeping

2.      Get up after around 20 minutes if you have not gone to sleep

3.      Return to bed when you are tired and ready to sleep

4.      Repeat steps 2 and 3 if necessary

5.      Get out of bed at the same time each day

6.      Do not nap during the day

As with most things in life, the key to success is keeping regular routines. Developing good sleep habits is no exception to this.

Perhaps the most significant thing young people can do to ensure a good night’s sleep is to avoid having a mobile phone in the room at night

Not only does the blue light from such devices adversely affect the ability to sleep, but the distraction of endless notifications pinging in can be very damaging when trying to establish regular sleep patterns.

Finally, we often think of sleep as a way of withdrawing from the world, and yet sleep – or the lack of it – and the dreams we experience are inevitably shaped by society.

In this sense, sleeping well can constitute a form of resistance to the pressures exerted by society.

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, even though the protagonist drugs herself to sleep, she wakes to find that during the night she has – without realising it – been making purchases on her phone.

The only way to stop herself consuming, she realises, is to throw away her phone.

I’m not suggesting the solution needs to be quite so drastic, but nevertheless, a combination of the above strategies should help to stop us feeling relentlessly tired and maximise the chances of our enjoying a good night’s sleep.

What is clear is that good sleep habits are key in allowing young people to rest and physically grow, and ultimately ensuring that all of us experience the necessary restorative calm essential to leading a full and healthy life.



Chris Greenhalgh
Principal and CEO

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