In 2005, the historian A. Roger Ekirch sparked a new conversation by reintroducing an old practice: segmented sleep. Up until the industrial era, people slept in two, four-hour chunks, separated by a late-night break, instead of the eight hours of uninterrupted rest that's become the modern-day standard. Learning of this bygone historical practice was no less than revelatory for many people who sought to revive the golden era of sleep.
A new book picks up and expands the conversation Ekirch started. In "Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World," Benjamin Reiss, an author and professor at Emory University, shows us how western societies have tried to control sleep to meet economic demands, reinforce class divisions and reflect evolving norms and knowledge for hundreds of years, at least. At some points, "Wild Nights" feels like a siren song for pre-industrial sleep. But Reiss does more than bemoan the loss of "natural" rest. Instead, he goes on to suggest that our quest for natural sleep is, in itself, misguided. There's nothing new about our current need to tame and manipulate sleep. But, Reiss argues, we've taken the compulsion to a new level.
I talked to Reiss about his new book, the downsides of private bedrooms and sleep's rising star. "Wild Nights" is set to be released on March 7.
At its core, what's the basic message in "Wild Nights"?
That there’s no natural way to sleep. As a society, we're bound by some pretty narrow rules that most people take to be god-given dictates about how to sleep, that all turn out to have very shallow roots, historically...But, [even if there's no] natural state of sleep to return to, what’s happening today to sleep is unprecedented, in terms of our attempts to control it in various ways.
What I'm hoping my book will do is not to give people ideas about what schedule works best for them, but to get them to be able to pull apart what the social rules are around sleep from what your body is telling you. These are often two very different things, and once you’ve figured that out, you might be able to take some license that you hadn’t allowed yourself to do earlier. I would like for it to be okay if a parent wants to sleep with their young child through the night. I would like for them to try to peel off some of the stuff about social taboos and expectations from what really works for a family.
You describe a number of sleep beliefs and behaviors that we've abandoned since the industrial era, but, from the book, it seemed like you had the strongest feelings about one change in particular: the loss of social sleep and the shift away from bed-sharing among family members and friends.
Yeah, a lot of that comes from my experience as a parent, and my observations as a professor. I really think that this insistence on solitary sleep for children, from a very young age, is bizarre. I understand why it happens — making sleep efficient for the child, apart from the parent, so that nobody's messing with the other's pattern — but it creates a lot of struggle, and one of the consequences of that struggle is that, when these children grow up, they're expected to share beds with other people. And when kids go away to college, they suddenly have people in their space, after 18 years of being trained, extremely rigidly, to go to sleep by themselves on a strict routine, in a darkened, sealed-off room. They kind of can’t handle it.
I was struck by the idea that, at some point in history, common wisdom advised against sleeping in a quiet, dark, private room, i.e., what we'd now consider a proper sleep environment.
A few sources lead me into that idea. One of the first was John Locke’s booklet about child-rearing, in which he says the only habit a child should get into about sleep is not having habits, because then, if they’re used to a bed that’s too soft, and to going to bed at exactly the same time, then when they have to travel and change their routine, they'll be thrown off. If you promote flexibility around sleep arrangements and configurations, then the child is going to be much more resilient to these changes in new environments. It kind of makes sense.
And then there’s anthropological writing. My colleage here at Emory, Carol Worthman, has written about how, in traditional societies that don’t have electricity, where people might be living in a household that also has livestock, you’re cued to go to sleep with noises. You don’t sleep in quiet. You have the sounds of animals munching. You have a fire crackling. You have other people in the room who are sort of settling in and groaning, and those are cues your body takes in. Our need for climate-controlled rooms and variable mattress firmness — these options are presented to us under the banner of flexibility, but they actually makes us more rigid because we end up unable to sleep without them.
You described how, in the victorian era, people blamed the downfall of sleep on the introduction of trains and the telegraph, and then used "electrified sleep gadgetry, including belts, rods, brushes and even a vibrating helmet to induce the sleep that seemed so difficult to attain in their frantic, hyperconnected world." Today, we blame our blue-lit devices and 24/7 connectivity for assaulting our circadian rhythms, and then download apps to keep tabs on the sleep we can't seem to get. Do you we'll ever stop blaming technology for breaking sleep, and then trying to use technology to fix it?
I think that, if we do, it will come with a broader rebound from the quantified self — the people who count their steps everyday with fitbits, or who are relentlessly measuring their caloric intake. We're just quantifying these basic activities, and turning what should be pleasures into exercises in generating statistics, and I think sleep is sort of the same, and that all the measuring and quantifying and surveillance that we put sleep under, even in our own homes, adds to a kind of obsessiveness about sleep that ultimately isn’t good for it.
But, having said that, the data that’s being generated is also absolutely fascinating and often put to uses that really do help people. I learned about an app that was created for travelers across time zones, where they sort of crowdsource and are generating data about people traveling to and from all different points, [to tell travelers] how to avoid jet lag on their trips, what time they should eat meals and go out. And I could imagine this being really helpful, but it depends on having hundreds of thousands of people hooked up to smartphone apps every night, so it’s a double-edged sword. I’m not anti-data collection, I just do think it has psychological consequences.
In some cases, people have modified their sleep habits to fit new circumstances. But, has the culture around sleep changed in any ways you consider entirely gratuitous, that can't be justified as necessary adaptations to meet new demands?
I think that there are a lot of products — sleep pharmaceuticals and gadgetry — that people assume are necessities that are actually manufactured desires...We could probably stand to have less consumerism around sleep. It seems like the big-scale changes that sleep has undergone do make sense in terms of what was demanded of sleep economically, but they have kind of taken on a life of their own, and I think we’re learning now, as the global economy changes, that the eight-hour ideal, originally developed to accommodate work schedules, just does not make a lot of sense for a lot of people. And it's coming apart at the seams.
The book is filled with anecdotes about the role sleep played in various social movements and economic systems. I couldn't get over the fact that "more slaves were whipped for oversleeping than any other fault," and that beliefs about race-based sleep needs were used to justify slavery. To me, it was the most striking example of the way sleep magnifies inequalities. In your research for the book, was there any single topic or piece of information that especially stuck with you?
My a-ha moment in getting going with the project was realizing that [Walden] was a book saturated with ideas about sleep and what was happening to it in the modern 19th-century world that Thoreau was trying to stand apart from. That made me realize that there was no limit for source material. The evidence of sleep history is kind of all around us; there's no historical topic that you can address that doesn't have sleep kind of baked into it, silently.
It seems like there's been more focus on sleep in literature, the media and the general cultural conversation, in the past few years.
It's been brought into the open, like so many aspects of our confesstional culture that people didn’t used to talk about in public. Sleep was kind of a late comer to the party. And that’s sort of interesting becasue it’s not in itself as necessarily as disturbing a topic as some of the others, but I do think it’s now more of a topic of social conversation, in part becasue so many people are frustrated with the role sleep plays in their own lives. So there’s clearly a market for all of the sleep discourse and sleep stories we're seeing. And my hope is that they will help to loosen the rules that have been governing sleep and that aren't working for so many people.
What would it mean to un-tame sleep in 2017?
That’s a great question and I don’t know that it can ever be un-tamed, because sleep is always subject to rules and to social expectations. To the extent that we’re social animals, we’re going to have rules and we can either obey them or try to invent new rules. And even if you're independently wealthy, or retired, you're still bound to some degree by your circadian rhythms, and you’re still living in the world. You need to accomplish certain things at certain hours when other people are up. But, I think the closest approximation would mean finding a sleep pattern that’s in tune with your body’s innate impulses or desires.