Med thumb night owl insomnia q and a main

For most of history, sleep has been a communal experience. Insomnia, however, has always been a private malady. Now, sleep deprivation is treated not as an affliction but as an accomplishment — a badge of honor to be worn when someone burns the midnight oil at their desk or binges an entire season of “Silicon Valley” in a single night. As they say, the times they are a-changin’.

Eluned Summers-Bremner understands this evolution better than anyone else. In 2008, the senior lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, published “Insomnia: A Cultural History,” which, as cultural histories of insomnia go, is likely the definitive text. In it, Summers-Bremner tracks sleeplessness from the dawn of civilization to the modern era, from Gilgamesh to the Industrial Revolution. Her research spanned both the literary and historical records and, as a result, required her to develop a nuanced understanding of insomnia that would apply to numerous cultures. We corresponded with her via email, and learned about her research and the ways in which insomnia shapes the world.

These days many people wear their sleeplessness as a badge of pride, though we know more than ever about the health benefits of sleep. Is this a recent attitude, or is that dissonance, in which both sleep and insomnia are signs of weakness, an old phenomenon? 

This negative or dismissive attitude to sleep really gets underway in the 18th century, in England at least. It is almost a sign of membership in an urban elite whose members might invest in the stock market, and who come together to drink coffee and discuss the political events of the day.

The meaning of insomnia has changed in the sense that we tend to regard sleep as something of a personal entitlement now.

This attitude has probably been exacerbated in contemporary times as part of other social changes whereby we have many more opportunities than previously to arrange and order our lives, especially the relation of leisure or downtime to work. That said, it’s debatable how much of this rearranging of labour [sic] and leisure is due to opportunity and how much is now simply a requirement for everyday living and working.

You've written that sleep used to be seen as a communal activity, whereas now it's more individualized. How did this attitude change? Has insomnia always been regarded as an affliction of the individual?

The individualizing of sleep happens gradually, at least in the west, as people become more upwardly mobile socially and financially. A room that is used for sleeping alone, or a room in which only one or two persons sleep, is something of a luxury for all but the middle and upper classes until the early-to-middle years of the 20th century. Insomnia seems always to have been an affliction of the individual in the sense that it is by definition isolating. You’re awake while everyone else is sleeping — this is usually what occurs.

However, the meaning of insomnia has changed in the sense that we tend to regard sleep as something of a personal entitlement now. Before the 18th century in the west, there seems to have been a greater variety of ways to understand insomnia: As a form of religious devotion or its opposite, demonic possession; as part of the condition of lovesickness; or as part of the experience of being a ruler or similarly recognized power.

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What originally drew you to the history of insomnia?

I became interested in insomnia somewhat randomly. I wrote a piece called “Sleep’s Guile: Insomnia and the Work of Art” for a book called “Witness to Pain.” That was about the connections between creativity and insomnia, with an emphasis on literary creativity. There’s more substantial literature on this, even among writers of fiction and poetry, than I was aware existed.

Insomnia is the absence of unconsciousness or the absence of oblivion that tends to take the form of an excess of something we don’t want when we are trying to sleep.

What were some of the biggest issues you encountered during your research?

The greatest challenge I faced when I came to write the book was finding a way to understand insomnia that might hold for different cultures and eras. I used the idea of the double negative for this. Insomnia is the absence of unconsciousness or the absence of oblivion that tends to take the form of an excess of something we don’t want when we are trying to sleep. Too many thoughts, for instance.

This was useful in the sense that it didn’t predispose me to notice only certain kinds of “excess” produced by insomnia, while it kept in view the disruption to the usual pattern of sleeping and waking that insomnia seems to be, for humans, whenever and wherever they live.

In the course of researching your book, did anything particularly surprise you? Were there there any discussions of insomnia — whether in literature or the historical record — that you found especially revelatory?

The most revelatory thing I encountered in the literature about insomnia was Roger Schmidt’s 2003 Raritan article “Caffeine and the Coming of the Enlightenment.” I found it early, and it made clear how much of our current thinking about sleep is a continuation of ideas developed in the eighteenth century in the west, the time known as the Enlightenment. The essay is about the culture of the coffee house, and there are other good books and articles about that, but I would never have found out about such details as the popularity of the wing chair for discreet daytime napping without Schmidt’s survey. It’s a lively read, as well.

While in waking life we tend to disregard our mortal limits, at least in our imaginations, in sleep it is our imaginings that are not in our control.

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Anything else?

I was happily surprised to find that the first story of a human hero, the ancient epic “Gilgamesh” (from 2700 BCE in what is now Iraq), is also the story of an insomniac. Gilgamesh’s insomnia is part of mourning the loss of an intimate friend, and he is cured by what we would call “reverse psychology.” The keeper of the underworld instructs him to stay awake for seven more nights to attain immortality, which test he fails.

Before he had known loss, Gilgamesh slept little, and the sleep that ends his mourning is a joining in the mortality he shares with other humans. The fact that he did not need to sleep when he did not know he was mortal, and that this in itself is a mortal situation, struck me as still being true of humans. We can never quite grasp our own finitude intellectually, while we are bound by it all the same.

Sleep can be seen as part of the practice of finitude, in this sense. While in waking life we tend to disregard our mortal limits, at least in our imaginations, in sleep it is our imaginings that are not in our control.