Is a good night’s sleep even legitimately possible?

This was originally posted at the UMN Press blog, here.

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.

Time is Alien, or Why I Slept through High School

I keep this old issue of Worlds of Tomorrow (an old pulp magazine) in my office with a nice article from Robert M. W. Dixon about the relative nature of number. He imagines what a species with six fingers on each hand might do with counting, and proposes that they would develop a number system with less weight on 5, 10, and 100 and more on 6, 12, and 144. His argument is that given a different physiology, a species might develop a radically different number system, and that there’s no real natural basis to number — an argument pretty similar to Brian Rotman’s, Helen Verran’s and Stephen Chrisomalis’ work. Time, like number, is a social invention, and given different environmental conditions, we might have a very different system of time. Like Stan Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, the day on Mars is necessarily going to be ordered differently than the day on Earth. Our day is measurable and predictable, but it doesn’t necessarily fit in well with our calendar system (hence the need for Leap Days).


There’s a nice piece in the New York Times Magazine from about a week ago that reviews a new book about chronobiology and the frictions that society produces for individuals. One of the points that both the book and article authors make is that individual clocks vary significantly from one another and over the life course — so the same person has radically different sleep needs at infancy, through childhood, during adolescence, young adulthood, and so on. And, added to that, are the clocks of those around us — those we share beds with and care for, which I talk about at length in The Slumbering Masses. The problem that so many of us face, especially during our teen years, is that our clocks are radically at odds with the institutions that shape our lives, especially school.

The debates around changing school start times have been going on for a long time now, and the evidence seems pretty compelling. Scientists can show that our cues for sleep tend to move later in the day and our need for sleep is longer, e.g. during your teens you might not be able to fall asleep until 11 PM and you might need 9 hours of sleep, making an 8 AM (or earlier) school time especially difficult to make. As a result, students end up falling asleep in class, have short attention spans, consume too much sugar and caffeine, act testy, and perform poorly in their school work. The schools that have recognized this have started to move school days later for middle and high schoolers, and have moved the school day up for elementary schoolers (who tend to wake up early). Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of resistance to changing school time, and it has a lot to do with social uses of time.

Parents tend to want to have earlier school days for their children, to ensure that they’re watched while parents work. And they don’t want buses to interfere with their morning commutes. Meanwhile, sports teams prefer to practice at the end of the school day, but want day light in order to conduct themselves. As a result, the school day remains relatively static, continuing to ensure that many students are chronically sleep deprived.

Our internal clocks tend to be rather stable within each life stage,* and so are our social cues (e.g. work starts at 9 AM or school at 7:15). But when we’re chronically sleep deprived, we tend towards earlier sleep throughout the week. And if we have social obligations blocking our ability to sleep — child or elder care, take-home work, chores — our sleep debt grows and grows. As a result, we crash and catch up on the weekends, only to start the whole cycle over again the following week. We pay off our debt only to build it up again — a nice synecdoche for American life more generally. And, sometimes, we end up seeing doctors for our sleep complaints, which can result in being prescribed a medication for problems that are largely socially determined – which I write about everywhere.

There are two solutions to these problems: First, our policy makers need to spend a little more time talking to scientists and physicians (and the occasional social scientist), and to take what they have to say about our biological drives more seriously when it comes to instituting social times. And, more importantly, our institutions need to be made more flexible. I think back on my time in high school, and I know some of my teachers didn’t want to be there at 8 AM any more than I did. Why not have a staggered school day, and allow students to start at 10 AM and end at 4 PM, or 7 AM and end at 1 PM? Flexibility like this would attend to the broad variation of physiological and social experiences, and help minimize our negative reactions to the requirements of everyday life. And it might just help us sleep better at night — or whenever the urge hits us. After all, there’s nothing strictly natural about our everyday schedules — they could be ordered radically differently — but it’s up to us to re-imagine the possibilities.

* I’ll write more about ways to change your clock some other time — it all has to do with your liver…