Technology for helping people sleep appears to be a booming business, with everything from machines that mimic ocean wave sounds to sensors built into mattresses to adjust the sleeping experience for maximum comfort. Technology also is ushered out of the bedroom, in the form of light temperature filters for smartphones and electronic tablets. Sleep difficulties, especially for older people, are nothing to be taken lightly since lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can lead to all sorts of problems in the larger society, some of them dangerous, like driving a motor vehicle while deprived of good sleep.
One of the factors often ignored in discussions of sleep is how the natural sleep cycle of our species appears to broken up into two, and often three periods. The natural cycle seems to drop into the background during most of maturity for many people, giving rise to the common illusion that eight hours of continuous sleep from late evening through the night to early morning is the norm. Nothing could be further from the truth. The true sleep pattern for our species makes itself known in youth and in old age, when work schedules are less demanding. The young and the old typically sleep several hours from evening into the night, then are up for an hour, maybe more, and then back to sleep from late night into the morning. They also often partake of a midday nap.
Asleep, a 1904 painting by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947).
The introduction of widely available electric lighting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played a part in resetting humanity’s internal clock, particularly for those living in industrial societies originating from northern Europe. Southern European societies retained a more relaxed rhythm and honored the tradition of the siesta, or midday relaxation. But in industrialized England and America the norm became 12 to 16 hours of work during all of daylight and into twilight at both ends of the day, followed by 8 to 12 hours of some sort of relaxation and sleep at home before getting back at it the next day. Sleep had to be concentrated in those hours, or foregone. Sleep at home when you got the slim chance, or fall asleep at the wheel of some dangerously unprotected machinery, risking death, maiming, or at the very least loss of employment.
To have been an insomniac working in a factory of the last centuries in the industrial north must have been utter hell, as it must be today for those working in the garment and electronics sweatshops of southern Asia. Some of the devices advertised for sale to help the sleepless may seem ludicrous or indulgent, but for those afflicted it may not seem so. The question is whether those who truly need those devices can afford them or are even aware of them. Probably not.
Madeline Kahn, as Lili Von Shtupp, sings “I’m Tired” in the 1974 Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles. Warning: foul language.
The sound of waves crashing, the gradual transition of blue light to red on electronics invited into the bedroom, and the monitoring of sleep quality, as far as that may be possible, all are geared toward the middle class and above, the office workers who have followed the 9 to 5 mold set for their kind one hundred years ago. Many work more hours than that, usually appended to the end of the day. All the same, sleep for them is crowded into the overnight hours, and if they don’t get it then they will miss out. There’s nothing wrong with them if they can’t sleep all 8 hours in the time allotted; it’s the mold that is broken and needs remaking.