SATURDAY morning. I’ve had the usual six-and-a-half hours, seven if I’m lucky. But the eyes pop open anyway, the hand reaches for the screen; yesterday’s online feuds to be continued, today’s online grief and possibilities to be sampled.
The daylight is calling, the weekend chores, that long walk… I should get up. But today, after the habitual finger-tapping, I let go of the rope and slip back into a second sleep (no kids to pull me out of bed, so it can be done). I wake up later in the morning, and it’s as if I’ve had a body and soul transplant. I literally leap out of bed, ready to go, with a giddy optimism about me.
Do you have the same kind of “sleep victory”? Those triumphs over stressful modern times, which nibble away at – and sometimes obliterate – our “natural” sleeping patterns? Eight hours minimum kip for optimum functioning, as the life coaches advise? Result!
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Well, along came a piece of Ivy League research last week, swinging an anthropologist’s mountain boot at our common sense assumptions. What was particularly thumped was the assumed relationship between more sleep and increased wellbeing. “Our ancestors probably didn’t get eight hours a night either”, runs the headline on the UCLA website, reporting a sleep study of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies in Tanzania, Bolivia and Namibia. The average slumber time clocked across all three tribes was six hours and 25 minutes.
We’ve been assuming that sleeping at sundown was natural for ancient humans (and unnatural for modern humans, who can flick on artificial light). Again, maybe not so: the tribes stayed awake for three hours and 20 minutes after sunset, their only illumination a campfire. The idea that we moderns have lost the habit of taking naps through the day? Not evident in their activities either. A more recent notion that pre-modern people had first and second sleeps – with the gap in between a rich space for sex, creativity, prayer – also wasn’t observed in the UCLA study. In the face of all this refutation, a young PhD nerd called Gandhi Yetish is quoted thus: “I feel a lot less insecure about my own sleep habits after having found the trends we see here.”
Now, it’s only one study. But what it triggers is how conflicted, even politicised, the issue of sleep has become. Without us really realising it, we’ve been using the science of sleep as a way to push back against the always-on, all-consuming, ever-interactive society.
The surface arguments are often to do with workplace efficiency. A 2011 Harvard Medical School study assessed that sleep deprivation cost US employers $63 billion a year in lost productivity. But underneath this is the terrain of “human capital” – the idea that those burned out by stress-related sleep disorders are not much use to “people businesses”, who rely on your focus, charm and commitment.
So bleary-eyed depression and lassitude hits the bottom-line, in terms of quality of performance and sick-leave taking. Here’s the fond reformer’s hope: that enlightened executives, informed by the latest mind science, would reduce working hours, improve work-life balance, and attend to the freshness of their employees out of mutual self-interest.
Too fond a hope, perhaps. Because there is obviously a counter-tendency in contemporary capitalism – those info-businesses which constantly need “more eyeballs” and “increased mind-share”. They regard sleep as a weird affront (and would be delighted to hear about the UCLA study.) As the US critic Jonathan Crary says, in terms of tapping into our evolved natures, business has no problem working with sexual desire, the urge for community, even play and games. The last is often no longer an escape from the grind, but its own kind of addictive effort, seduced out of us by our smart devices (“playbour”, as they call it in games studies).
But sleep! How obtuse, how inaccessible! The Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney called it “the poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,/The indifferent judge between the high and low”. Sleep is the final part of our creaturely natures, suggests Crary in his brilliant book 24/7, that resists exploitation. It’s the last obstacle against the permanent request for us to interact; to perform our personality for fun and profit; to be caught up in competitive and marketised relations. When we close our eyes and go to sleep, we’re out of all that.
So as you might expect, the techno-scientific elites are working on it. The news of the behaviours of the Hadza, the San and the Tsimane are only an addition to a coming battery of treatments and forces, aiming to overrun the republic of slumber.
The US Army has been researching the sleepless soldier for years, with the audacious goal being a seven-day waking period, with no impairment of functioning. (They are also somewhat expert in the art of sleep-deprivation and “advanced interrogation” – or torture – but that’s for another happy morning). Some of the applications leaking out to the public include something called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
TMS looks like it may eventually be able to trigger “slow-wave” sleep (the deepest and most refreshing kind) at the flick of a switch. So you might be able to reduce even the “new necessary” of six-and-half hours to even fewer – four hours, maybe three. Oxford’s Julian Savulescu suggests this, in reality, may increase our lifespan – giving us effectively 100 or more years of consciousness, within our 80 years of biological existence. More years to do what, exactly? And for whose benefit? Like so many of these “human enhancement” evangelisers, the political question – about the already unequal societies and structures that these transformative methods explode into – is only ever answered by frantic hand-waving.
The modern use of modafinil is not encouraging. Originally created to keep fighter pilots awake during long sorties, it’s now being necked by college students in the US, who also seem to derive cognitive benefits from it (as well as being able to pull overnights easily).
Under market conditions, it’s easy to imagine the cocktail of mind-boosts this generation will be up for. If our natural quotient of sleep becomes a victim of the post-human ragtime – well, who said we were brute animals anyway? However, as the radical innovations of the next few decades hurtle towards us, we might have to be equally as clever about the limits we establish against them, as much as we embrace their potential.
The right to sleep might be one of those limits. I am particularly taken by Crary’s argument that sleep profoundly reminds us about the importance of care. It’s not just that our physiology compels us to take deep care of ourselves. But that while asleep – objectively, a vulnerable condition to be in – others have to take care of us too. Crary writes: “As the most private, most enclosed, most vulnerable state common to all sleep is therefore crucially dependent on society for it to be sustained.”
Or to give Margaret Hilda another light kick: if there is such a thing as collective sleep, then there must perforce be such a thing as society, too. As you awake late today to a cup of tea and toast, or deliver the same to the rousing tousled, enjoy your quiet moment of sleepy humanist socialism. And then – probably, eventually – get up.
Pat Kane is a writer and musician (www.patkane.today). Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep is on Verso Books, £7.99