RHJ 17-15B FB


Sleep used to be natural, governed by darkness, light, and fatigue. Now it’s highly processed and scheduled. An author discusses his research on the ways this has led to a poorer night’s sleep.

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  • Benjamin Reiss, Professor of English, Emory University and author, Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World

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Taming Sleep

Nancy Benson: Getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult. Sometimes, we’re desperate. You’ve heard it plenty of times on this program.

Restless Tom: [from a Unisom ad] I have to get to sleep… Tom had a stressful day. And now he can’t…”

Benson: So trying too hard may be exactly the wrong thing to do. And millions of us do it every night.

Benjamin Reiss: That can put pressure on sleep, right? I mean, when you go to bed thinking I got to sleep cause I got to be up the next day, that for many people ensures insomnia. I believe in taking a different tack, that sleep is pleasurable.

Benson: That’s Benjamin Reiss (Reese), professor of English at Emory University and author of Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World. The book is an examination of how we sleep, how we used to sleep, and what the difference says about what we’re not doing right.  

Reiss: Human sleep is inherently quite flexible and it’s varied a great deal over time and it varies a great deal across cultures. Virtually every facet of sleep is subject to some kind of cultural shaping. What we’re doing wrong is not necessarily sleeping the wrong way, but that we’re setting rules around it and acting as if those rules are God given mandates about how we’re supposed to sleep.

Benson: Sleep doesn’t mean just closing your eyes, at least not anymore. Now it’s an entire production, a ritual of time, place, and procedure.

Reiss: If you think about how…if you have an image in your mind of what a good night’s sleep is and a proper way to sleep is I think probably most listeners would agree on some pretty basic features. You do it all at night, or virtually all of it at night. You try to do it in one consolidated block of about seven to eight hours. You do it in private in a room that’s specially appointed for sleep and that is sound free, tends to be climate controlled, on a very soft surface, and you have children apart from parents and children being trained to reproduce these feature of normal sleeping from an age as young as six months. You have everybody getting themselves on a fairly rigid schedule, or at least attempting to get themselves on a rigid schedule where they are doing it more or less the same way at about the same time night after night after night.

Benson: If those rules don’t fit, Reiss says, it’s trouble. Or at least it is when we try too hard to sleep the way we’re supposed to.

Reiss: People who don’t sleep in that way are either considered to have disordered sleep, or to have some kind of moral failing. So for instance, parents who sleep with children past a certain stage, sleep with them either in the same bed or in the same room are considered often to have a kind of moral failing despite the fact that through most of human history that was the way it was done. But people who can’t package their sleep into one seven or eight-hour chunk are sometimes diagnosed with sleep disorders and there are medical consequences that follow. Or they can’t get themselves on the appropriate schedule to meet the demands of the workplace.

Benson: “The workplace” of course, is the source of many of our sleep rules, going back to the early days of industrialization. It didn’t matter anymore what season it was and when the sun rose or set.

Reiss: You would get up, answer to the factory bell and be on the floor at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m., or whatever time every single day, and so you had to get yourself on a rigid schedule as opposed to, if you had been a farmer in previous generations and your sleep might vary according to the rise and fall of the sun and the needs at hand. So factory life and electric lighting played a huge role in changing people’s’ lives and wrenching them out of this responsiveness to natural cues for sleeping and waking. But industrialization has entered a more developed phase in the late 19th and early twentieth century started disrupting the very patterns that it had created. When you got into industrial processes that ran 24 hours a day, you couldn’t say, everybody’s going to sleep eight hours at night, you needed to have some people on the night shift.

Benson: Reiss says some of America’s most famous literature can be read as a protest against sleeplessness. For example, in his book, Walden, Henry David Thoreau deplores the noise of trains and factories… and muses about a man who can’t nap for even 30 minutes without demanding to know the news when he wakes.

Reiss: He just couldn’t sleep. He was strung out, could barely read and write, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So it was striking when you read Walden how much of a presence sleep is in the book. He writes a lot about the life he’s left behind and the people who are leading lives of quiet desperation in the towns and cities that he’s tried to remove himself from. A lot of that quiet desperation that he writes about is an inability to find rest. The portrait that he paints of sleep disruption in the 19th century, when I read it looking for this seemed incredibly contemporary.

Benson: On the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, sleeping by the rules can be more difficult. The environments may be noisy and dangerous… the hours irregular. There are advantages to spreading out and sleeping the way we’re supposed to.  

Reiss: Affording privacy, allowing people to go to sleep on different schedules and not having one generation staying up and disturbing the sleep of another and so on. That’s clearly an advantage, but there are also some disadvantages as well. As we insist that our children sleep on their own through the night, and according to a rigid schedule, one thing that happens frequently is conflict between parents and children around bedtime. Children saying, you get to stay up. Why do I have to go to sleep? Why do I have to go in that dark room? I’m lonely, I’m scared, and I want to be with other people.

Benson: But once we’ve successfully trained our kids to sleep alone and the biggest hurdle is waking them up in the morning, the life cycle changes. We send them off to college and demand something different—a new set of rules.

Reiss: Then they’re expected to share a room with somebody, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Well, the roommate might snore, or may want to listen to music late at night or have some other behavior that disturbs the carefully cultivated routine of sleep that the student has experienced. And then when they grow up and settle down with somebody else, sharing a bed with a person who might roll over and kick you or take a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night or whatever, if you’ve been brought up to sleep in essentially a sleep fortress your own bedroom and then suddenly you’ve got to share space with somebody else, it’s no wonder that some people have trouble getting a good night’s sleep.

Benson: And given our 24/7 world, is it any wonder that sleep may come in bits and pieces? Our job, Reiss says, is to embrace sleep without worrying about when we get it.

You can find out more about all our guests on our website, radiohealthjournal.net. You can also find archives of our programs there, as well as on iTunes and Stitcher.

Our production director is Sean Waldron.

I’m Nancy Benson.


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