We all spend roughly one-third of our lives sleeping. But, because I write for Van Winkle's, I also devote my waking hours to that little neurobiological process we call sleep. Over the last two years, I've spent my days asking sleep researchers to break down studies, figuring out the finer points of Ambien etiquette and learning about the behavioral and medical significance of sleeping positions, recurring nightmares and bedtime snacks. I've explored sleep as an act of intimacy and refuge; as a diagnostic alarm bell and an economic indicator. Basically, I've kept close tabs on anything that might be relevant to our resting lives.
And, in the process, I've come across all sorts of people who've dedicated their careers and free time to illuminating and improving sleep, from scientists plugging away in labs to sleep-tainers using their creative energy to make people drowsy. There's no way to survey the sprawling sleep community and objectively choose the "Most Interesting People in Sleep." So I embraced the subjective nature of best-of lists and got in touch with the sleep experts and enthusiasts who've most changed the way I think about sleep. They bring diverse perspectives on hot topics in sleep, such as the meaning of “normal” sleep, the cultural relevance of dreams and the societal treatment of night owls. And every one of them has enhanced our collective knowledge of sleep or helped people get more, better sleep.
Here are, in no particular order, the 15 Most Interesting People in Sleep.
1. The Time Master
Name: Till Roenneberg
Title: Chronobiologist at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilian University
Why they're interesting: Revolutionized the study of biological rhythms and sleep-wake schedules
Night owls have an ally in Till Roenneberg. The German chronobiologist has spent years dispelling the myth that people who like to sleep late are lazy. In fact, one of Roenneberg’s goals (for society) is for every employer to tell their employees, “I want you to come to work after you wake up without an alarm clock.” No productivity hack, Roenneberg says, is more effective than letting people work when their bodies say it's time to.
In his 2012 book, "Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired," Roenneberg introduced the now-popular concept of social jet lag: For many people, social time (the time according to your phone) and internal time (the time according to a tiny part of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus) don’t line up. When you force yourself onto an unnatural schedule, you develop social jet lag, which is the tiredness produced by the difference between social and internal time.
Roenneberg is quick to point out that he doesn’t have a sleep research background. “Using sleep as a marker for the body clock,” he said, “is where I came into the field.” But, at this point, he’s firmly entrenched in the sleep world — this year alone, he was invited to make the keynote address at three sleep conferences — and committed to making public life more amenable to diverse sleep schedules and needs. His research is even the basis for the b society, an organization devoted to creating chrono-flexible societies.
“There’s this wonderful sentence by a German comedian who loved Pekingese [dogs]," said Roenneberg. “A life without a Pekingese is possible but meaningless. I’d say the same for sleep.”
Next up, Roenneberg wants to find objective ways to assess sleep quality and determine chronotype. The latter goal could be accomplished either by measuring light and motor activity or by using a blood prick test, from which a person's internal time could be deduced. “In the the long run,” said Roenneberg, “we need to know — for diagnostics, therapies, research — practically every day what a person’s internal time is. My dream, and I’m working on it, is a wristwatch with two dials, so that you can look up what the external time is and what your internal time is.”
2. The Ambassador
Name: Arianna Huffington
Title: CEO of Thrive Health and author of “The Sleep Revolution”
Why they're interesting: Media-and-wellness mogul who turned sleep into a mainstream conversation
Arianna Huffington is the most famous sleep obsessive in the country. By now, her sleep-Eureka moment is etched into the annals of health history: In 2007, after years of, as Huffington put it, "buying into the delusion that burnout and sleep deprivation were necessary to succeed," the then-EIC of the Huffington Post collapsed from exhaustion at work and broke her cheekbone. "That was my wake-up call," said Huffington, "and I now realize that I would have been more productive — and more present to enjoy my life — if I’d been getting enough sleep all along."
Thus began Huffington's tenure as the unofficial spokesperson for sleep. She overhauled her own resting life and spread the word about shuteye via social media, public appearances, sleep coverage on the Huffington Post, a TED Talk and the crown jewel of her sleep corpus, 2016's "The Sleep Revolution." "When I first started writing "The Sleep Revolution,'" Huffington said, "the conversation on sleep was still mostly about convincing people that sleep was even important."
And Huffington was in an ideal position to drum up interest in sleep: Unlike sleep researchers, she had the audience and name recognition necessary to reach the masses. And unlike a lot of celebrities who take on causes, Huffington had a reputation as a serious-minded careerist; people were willing to accept her as an authority. Her passion for sleep undeniably registered with a lot of people, particularly over-worked, "I'll sleep when I'm dead" go-getters — fledgling Huffingtons, maybe — who hadn't yet realized that their refusal to slow down was holding them back.
Attitudes towards sleep have changed enough in the past few years that Huffington no longer feels the need to hammer home the message that sleep matters. "We’re past that stage, as more and more individuals and companies are taking in the science that sleep is essential to well-being and productivity," said Huffington. "So now the conversation is moving towards how we can change our culture to come in line with the science."
After years of promoting sleep with laser-like focus, Huffington has broadened her sphere of interest. But that doesn't mean she's leaving behind sleep entirely. The mission of her new wellness venture, Thrive Global, Huffington said, "is to end the stress and burnout epidemic, and sleep is obviously a big part of that."
3. The Dream Collector
Name: Kelly Bulkeley
Title: Psychologist of religion specializing in dream research
Why they're interesting: Data-banking dreams to understand the waking world
Kelly Bulkeley takes a big data approach to studying dreams. In 2009, he launched the Sleep and Dream Database, an online archive containing more than 30,000 dream reports (i.e., written descriptions of dreams). Using digital-search technology, Bulkeley and his colleagues have put a modern-day spin on an old and formerly labor-intensive practice called dream content analysis.
Essentially, Bulkeley "codes" dreams by analyzing dream reports for elements such as aggressive emotions, sexual situations, humor and self-awareness. And, by coding large numbers of dream reports, Bulkeley has been able to form insights about the dreaming lives of different populations and track changes in dreaming trends over time. Dream content experts have found, for instance, that kids dream about animals more than adults do and that women and men dream more similarly today than they did in the '60s. It's a sociological investigation, via your weird subconscious.
In one project, Bulkeley looked at dreams about political figures during Obama's presidency. ("Dream" Obama came off as a messianic figure. "Dream" Trump? Not so much.) But Bulkeley isn't gunning to become, say, MSNBC's first-ever (dream) political analyst. His goal's a bit broader. "I’m interested in everything there is to know about dreams," said Bulkeley, "how they are formed, what function(s) they serve, how to interpret their meanings and who they have inspired to blaze forward on new paths of creativity and innovation."
The mainstream attitude towards dreams, Bulkeley says, has ups and downs. "Today’s generation of psychotherapists has received very little training in dream interpretation," Bulkeley said, "which is a big shift from a few decades ago. That’s one less place where people can safely talk about their dreams."
But he does think dreams are getting the treatment they deserve somewhere else. "I’m thinking of several recent television shows with fascinating and surprisingly insightful explorations of dreaming," said Bulkeley, "Falling Water," "Westworld," "Dream Corp LLC," and "The OA." And now that the new season of "Twin Peaks" is out, we've truly reached “peak-dream tv.”'
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, dreams factor prominently in Bulkeley's own life: "I've kept a dream journal for more than thirty years, and at this point I remember a dream pretty much every night."
4. The Health Reporter
Name: James Hamblin
Title: Health Editor at The Atlantic and author of “If Our Bodies Could Talk”
Why they're interesting: A doctor-turned-writer with a sleep obsession
Only a few years ago, James Hamblin was a radiology resident, working 28-hour shifts and skimping on sleep. Then, after deciding to leave medicine, Hamblin became fanatical about getting his eight hours. Today, the doctor-turned-writer examines the beliefs and policies responsible for the sleep deprivation that, unlike many people, he's been able to put behind him.
“I think a lot of people are constantly mildly sleep-deprived and, until you are radically sleep-deprived, it’s hard to appreciate how important sleep is,” said Hamblin. “Going through it gave me perspective. I was in a pretty privileged position of being in medical training, and I still had no way around the system, and that made me very sympathetic to anyone who has to work these long shifts, or night shifts, or can’t afford a place in a quiet neighborhood where they can sleep through the night, or for any number of reasons, doesn’t have access to good sleep every night.”
Hamblin's insights on sleep deprivation during residency are relevant outside his own relationship with sleep. Debates over residents' shift schedules have waged on since the '80s. And five years ago, a 16-hour limit was implemented. But, as of this July, first-year residents will once again be subject to the 28-hour shifts Hamblin remembers well.
It’s not hard to guess how Hamblin feels about the impending change. (He's not a fan.) But, as in the rest of his work, Hamblin presents his position without being overly prescriptive or engaging in fear-mongering. In both his written stories and his video series, also called "If Our Bodies Could Talk," Hamblin comes across as open-minded and dorkily funny, but still authoritative, because, oh yeah, he’s a doctor.
“I’m very sensitive to trying not to scare people," said Hamblin. "When I’m writing about sleep deprivation, it’s less about preying on individual fears than trying to make people realize that there’s a need for change in modifying systems that would allow people to get better sleep. It's a delicate line, because [sleep deprivation] is serious, but, culturally, a lot of institutions don’t take it seriously — we reward people for staying at work all night, or coming in super early, and take it to mean they're dedicated to their job, when, a lot of times, it’s done at the cost of sleep. If it was another form of self-harm, and it was manifesting in a more acute injury, then we wouldn’t celebrate it."
5. The Exorcist
Name: Baland Jalal
Title: Neuroscientist at The University of Cambridge
Why they're interesting: Invented a simple method for escaping sleep paralysis
In 2005, Baland Jalal woke up to the feeling of a ghost choking him and a vision of his legs swirling up and down. The hallucination, while terrifying, piqued his curiosity. Five years later, the neuroscientist began to dissect the sleep disorder known as sleep paralysis, by analyzing both the neurobiological underpinnings of the attacks and the impact of cultural beliefs on sufferers’ experiences. Within a few years, Jalal came up with a grand theory to explain the phenomenon and one of the first methods for treating it.
“My work explores the deepest mysteries of the human brain and consciousness — indeed, what it means to be human,” said Jalal. “Sleep paralysis is one such enigma that allows us — at least for a short time — to see and become ghosts, have encounters with space aliens from distant galaxies, and travel to exotic lands of lucid dreams where, like a great Michelangelo, we are the sculptors of our own realities.”
Through his work, Jalal both hopes to help people sleep better and showcase the extraordinary power of human imagination. “When we sleep,” Jalal said, “all our guards are down and fantasy-mode takes over: We become either our most creative or most destructive selves.”
But neurological excavations can’t solve every mystery in our nocturnal lives. “When all is said and done and the curtains drawn, we’re still left with the haunting question: How do we know life itself is not merely a dream?,” Jalal said. “I mean, we usually don’t know we’re dreaming when we’re dreaming, do we? In the words of Shakespeare, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep."'
6. The Consultant
Name: Cheri Mah
Title: Research Fellow at the UCSF Human Performance Center and UCSF School of Medicine and NBA sleep consultant
Why they're interesting: Pioneered the use of sleep optimization in pro sports
Back in 2002, Cheri Mah was running a study on sleep and cognition at Stanford University. By chance, some of the Stanford swim team had enrolled in the study, which required them to keep the sort of consistent, rigid sleep schedules that are rare among college kids. Overhauling their sleep, it turned out, paid off; several of them swam the best races of their lives. "I was fascinated by the swimmers' performance," said Mah, "setting multiple new personal records during the study alongside the cognitive and mood benefits we observed."
Mah hadn't intended to study sleep and athletic performance, but the swimmers' accidental success sparked her a-ha moment. Since then, under the guidance of her mentor, the famous Stanford researcher and "father of sleep medicine" William Dement, Mah has focused on sleep in high-performing athletes. Through studies on collegiate, semi-professional and professional athletes, Mah has shown that extended sleep leads to faster times, higher scores and sharper skills.
One focus of her work has been the impact of cross-country travel and demanding schedules on NBA players' performance. She even constructed a formula to figure out the games at which NBA teams are at a competitive disadvantage on account of their schedules. The formula, which has been adopted by other experts and sports stats nuts, accounts for factors including whether the game is home or away and how well-rested the opposing team's players are.
Mah zeroed in on sleep in athletes at the right time: The past five years have seen coaches and players start to prioritize sleep in a way they never had before. As a sleep consultant to the Golden State Warriors, among other elite athletes, Mah teaches teams and individual competitors how to develop sleep strategies that work with their tight schedules and optimize both sleep and recovery to boost their performance.
"It's great to see more athletes and teams keying in on sleep as a competitive advantage," said Mah. "My hope is that my research helps to better understand the impact of enhancing sleep, contributes to shaping the role of proper sleep in sports performance for athletes at all levels, and inspires many others to prioritize healthy sleep every day."
Mah has used her sleep expertise to help worldclass athletes run, dunk, hit and throw. But, she says, everyone can follow their lead. "Whether you're an elite athlete or a weekend warrior," said Mah, "healthy sleep is essential for each of us to be at our best."
7. The Viral Star
Title: Youtube creator/ASMR-tist
Why they're interesting: Making videos that lull people to sleep
Millions of people have made their way to the Gentle Whispering ASMR Youtube Channel. And thousands of them have left comments for Maria — the woman who creates and stars in every video. Their number-one request, Maria says, is videos to help them fall asleep. So sleep-inducing videos are what they get.
ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, refers to a tingly sensation that some people feel in their scalp (and down their neck and spine). People with ASMR can watch videos — made by ASMRtists like Maria — that are designed to elicit those tingly feelings via "triggers." Common triggers include things like personal attention, whispering and soft, repetitive sounds. There are various types of ASMR videos, including simulated medical appointments and rhythmic tapping videos, but they're notoriously hard to describe — check some out for yourself.
Maria, who does not use her last name for privacy reasons, started watching "whisper videos" in 2009 to quell her anxiety. But she found herself itching to get in front of the camera. So, in 2011, she tamed her naturally bubbly voice into a slow, breathy whisper and started making her own videos. Today, Maria is the most famous ASMRtist in the world.
It’s possible, Maria says, to make an ASMR video that won't help people fall asleep. But Maria intentionally creates all of her videos — including simple whisper videos, role plays and beauty tutorials — to function both as tingle-sparkers and sleep aids. “You’ll notice that in the beginning of all my videos,” said Maria, explaining her formula for sleepy videos, “I talk louder and faster, and then towards the end of the videos, I speak quieter, slower and dim the lights.”
But, while Maria pays a lot of attention to structure and sound quality in her videos, she’s less concerned with subject matter. “Most of the time, it doesn’t matter what you say,” said Maria. “People aren’t listening to the words; that's not what they care about. We live in a world of chaos and our ASMR videos give the viewer an opportunity to be submerged in a pool of attention and love. They feel like they’re being pampered and taken care of. That's what they care about.”
Maria still uses ASMR to help her power down at night (although she doesn't use her own videos). But she warns against OD-ing. “You can build up a tolerance, so I’d advise people to take breaks, weekly or bi-weekly, or at least not to watch more than one or two videos a night.”
8. The Revivalist
Name: Roger Ekirch
Title: Historian at Virginia Tech University
Why they're interesting: Reintroduced the long-lost practice of "segmented sleep" to the modern world
Thanks to Roger Ekirch, the 1800s are all the rage — in terms of sleep, at least.
In a landmark paper published in 2001, Ekirch presented evidence that, until the Industrial Revolution, the Western world slept in two separate chunks rather than the single eight-hour stretch that's become the norm. Somehow, this historical tidbit had flown under the radar. Four years later, in 2005, Ekirch provided a more extensive account of the left-behind practice of "segmented sleep" in his book "At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past." Since then, pre-Industrial sleep, and the 19th-century transition to what we now call consolidated sleep, has been Ekirch’s primary focus as a historian.
Ekirch’s discovery has both advanced our sleep knowledge and helped people understand their own sleep quirks and struggles. Those with middle-of-the-night insomnia (who wake up after falling asleep and can’t get back to bed), for instance, may be able to draw on history to re-frame their atypical sleep habits as different rather than broken.
“Their sleep, from a historical perspective, may well be a persistent echo of this long dominant pattern of biphasic sleep in western societies dating back, at the least, to Homer’s 'Odyssey,'" said Ekirch, of middle-night insomniacs. “Sleep physicians have informed me that patients derive a measure of comfort from this knowledge, which, in some instances, enables them, after awakening, to fall asleep more readily by lessening their anxiety."
Despite recognizing marked progress in our cultural treatment of sleep (and helping upend sleep norms himself), Ekirch thinks we have more to learn about the sleep habits of our forebears. “In my view as a historian, the prevalence of segmented sleep in non-Western pre-Industrial communities has yet to be resolved satisfactorily.”
9. The Dean
Name: Benjamin Reiss
Title: Professor and author of the book “Wild Nights: How taming sleep created our restless world.”
Why they're interesting: A cultural historian exploring the past and present through a prism of sleep
Benjamin Reiss, a professor at Emory University, is leading the effort to move sleep from the bedroom into the classroom. For years, Reiss says, sleep was ignored by academics. But it's finally caught the attention of historians, anthropologists, sociologists and literary scholars. Reiss himself co-teaches a sleep seminar, where rest is subject to serious intellectual inquiry. “I’ve used history and literature to try to understand why sleep has become such a source of frustration in the contemporary world,” Reiss said.
And our collective quest to understand sleep, Reiss believes, hinges as much on science research and clinical casework as it does on the emergence of sleep as a confessional topic. “With the rise of the internet, we live in an increasingly first-person culture,” Reiss said. “Expert voices no longer dominate — some of the most successful and interesting recent books about sleep, for instance, have been written by insomniacs rather than sleep researchers or physicians.”
With the publication of "Wild Nights," Reiss has, in some sense, picked up Ekirch’s torch. In the book he explains that, while our compulsive need to control sleep is by no means new, our current definition of a good night's rest absolutely is. Our pre-industrial ancestors, for instance, hit the sack alongside family members and even friends — sweaty bodies, strange noises and all. They could probably fall asleep anywhere.
And today? We're grown a tad more rigid about our bedfellows and sleep environments. "Sleeping straight through the night, on a strictly monitored routine, in a private noise-free room, with at most two consenting adults sharing a bed, and each child apart from parents in his or her own room," Reiss said, "is a very recent historical development, and it requires a lot of money and effort to attain."
10. The Evolutionist
Name: David Samson
Title: Evolutionary biologist at The University of Toronto
Why they're interesting: Examining how human sleep has changed since Homo erectus dozed in trees
A common refrain in the sleep conversation is that our modern-day rest is broken. But David Samson, who studies the evolution of human sleep, has a different take. "Short, fragmented sleep isn't just a byproduct of electricity and smart phones," said Samson. "Humans have been trading off nighttime sleep for other activities (i.e., finding food, partying, searching for a mate) since we mastered the use of fire."
Samson makes the case that every change to human sleep, from the time of Homo erectus all the way to iphone addictus, has played a role in our cognitive development. The logical question underlying Samson's work is: Why would humans have evolved to put themselves in the defenseless position of being unconscious all night long for no reason? His answer is that, of course, they wouldn't. Early humans started sleeping in one, long chunk, Samson hypothesizes, because it enabled them to get the deep sleep and REM sleep necessary for the development of higher-order cognitive capabilities. In turn, these cognitive boosts promoted survival.
One focal point of Samson's research is comparing human sleep with that of great apes (our six closest primate relatives) to figure out what makes human rest unique. Through these cross-species comparisons, Samson hopes to "discover how evolution shaped the relationship between sleep, cognition, and health."
Samson also looks at sleep in industrialized societies vs. modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes. The idea here is to understand how people sleep in the absence of technology and other modern practices, such as the 9-to-5 workday. From his work with both primates and traditional populations, Samson has found evidence that human sleep is inherently flexible — far more so than the sleep of other great apes. Long story short: We've evolved to go with the flow.
11. The Storyteller
Name: Drew Ackerman
Title: Host of the podcast “Sleep with Me”
Why they're interesting: Responsible for making "adult bedtime stories" a thing
Drew Ackerman tells dull, meandering stories on topics no one cares about. And that’s exactly why his weekly podcast “Sleep With Me" has become such a hit. After getting interested in podcasts about five years ago, Ackerman toyed with the idea of creating his own. He came up with an idea for adult bedtime stories. “At first, I was like, no that’s too weird and too embarrassing and too silly,” Ackerman said. “Because I knew there were already all of these other audio sleep aids, like different types of sound and ambient music. But they didn’t work for me.”
So, in 2013, Ackerman gave adult bedtime stories a shot. His audience grew very slowly, giving him time to master the format — each show should be distracting enough to keep people from getting lost in their minds, but not interesting enough to make anyone care about reaching the end. “I want all the shows to feel like I’m just sitting there winging the story,” Ackerman said. “But it actually takes a lot of work to do that.”
As more listeners started tuning in, Ackerman relied on their feedback to tweak his shows. “A lot of times, I’d be recording a show and I’d just start singing,” said Ackerman. “I thought that was harmless, but people would say, ‘that wakes me up,’ and I was like, oh, okay, then I guess I can’t sing.”'
Eventually, he struck the right balance between peripatetic narratives and non-sequiturs. “The essential element for me, to tell someone a bedtime story, is being present in the moment,” said Ackerman, “and part of that is putting self-criticism aside. I’m able to indulge my super curious, super boring side and ramble for as long as I want.”
Ackerman thinks of "Sleep With Me" as equal parts sleep aid and entertainment. “I always call [my show] a sleep offering, [as opposed to] a sleep solution or cure," said Ackerman, "because I think it takes the pressure off listeners. An offering is there for you to try out and just see how it goes, whereas a solution is supposed to work. I like the podcast to be pressure free — it could help you fall asleep, and I hope it does help, but it contains no shoulds or wrong ways to use it."
"Sleep With Me" is also valuable, Ackerman feels, because it creates a community for troubled sleepers. “It can feel very isolating, in the deep, dark night, like you’re the only one going through this," said Ackerman. "Everyone seems connected in this feeling of why can’t I just fall asleep. I think it’s reassuring, in some sense, to know you’re not battling it alone.”
12. The Sleep Deprivation Authority
Name: William “Scott” Killgore
Title: Director of the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience Lab in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona
Why they're interesting: Figuring out how skipping sleep changes your perceptions, thought processes and behavior
Why does sleep deprivation leave one person depressed but another person giggly? What happens to our ability to make decisions, evaluate risk and control our emotions when we don’t sleep? These are some of the questions at the center of Scott Killgore’s research.
Killgore, a neuropsychologist who served in the military for 15 years, is especially focused on mental health and performance in military personnel and combat veterans, for whom sleep deprivation is an institutionalized scourge. Being in the military means performing physically and mentally demanding tasks on little shuteye. So Killgore has studied coffee and other stimulants as a replacement for sleep. And, no, a double espresso isn't a substitute for a full night's rest.
“Sleep deprivation can impair many aspects of higher cognition,” said Killgore, “And it appears that caffeine “wakes up” some, but not all, subtle aspects of cognitive performance, such as some kinds of emotional judgment and decision making. Thus, you may feel awake, alert, and responsive, but still be making poor decisions — a very bad combination. The only thing that seems to restore these higher-level capacities is sleep.”
Killgore used to be a “total night owl." Over the years, however, he's shifted his circadian pattern and become more of a morning person. But it's not as though his brain started working best in the AM just because he keeps earlier hours. “Cognitively, I still find that my creative writing juices are at their best in the early evening just about the time I am expected home for dinner,” Killgore said. “Some things may never change.”
13. The Relationship Expert
Name: Wendy Troxel
Title: Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist, RAND Corporation
Why they're interesting: Studying sleep in couples
Sleep has traditionally been studied as a solo behavior. But most adults don’t actually sleep by themselves: More than 50 percent of us hit the sack next to our significant others. Wendy Troxel is a leading figure in the exploration of dyadic sleep, meaning the practice of sleeping in pairs.
“Sleep is an inherently social behavior,” said Troxel. “People prefer to sleep with a partner (as opposed to sleeping alone), even though there may be objective costs to sharing a bed — in terms of increased risk for sleep disruptions. This suggests that the psychological benefits we derive from sharing a bed with a significant other outweigh the costs.”
Dyadic sleep research is a subset of the literature on health and relationships. People who are in long-term relationships, studies have shown, enjoy longer, less disease-ridden lives. Troxel’s work mainly focuses on the bidirectional relationship between sleep and relationships — i.e., how sleep affects relationships (between couples) and, in return, how relationships manifest in sleep habits. "I think there has been increasing recognition of the multiple levels of influence on sleep," said Troxel, "that far from being an isolated behavior, that sleep is embedded within a social context."
So far, the existing literature on sleep in couples, most of which bears Troxel’s name, shows that getting a good or a poor night’s sleep absolutely affects how people rate their relationships and interact with their partners. Furthermore, Troxel's research demonstrates that relationship dynamics affect how people rest, but not in a uniform way. The sleep-relationship link, for instance, looks different in men and women. And Troxel is working to create a more nuanced picture of sleeping-a-deux.
"In my future work on sleep in couples," Troxel said, "I would like to focus on other couples that are vulnerable to both sleep disturbances and relationship problems, such as couples in which one or both members are shift-workers. I would also like to develop a sleep-focused couples intervention to help couples sleep better together and improve the quality of their relationship."
14. The Equalizer
Name: Michael Grandner
Title: Director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona
Why they're interesting: Probing the relationship between sleep and socioeconomic inequality
When we look at sleep as a public health concern, it's important to acknowledge that the people who are getting the worst shuteye are often the same people who have the least control over it. As Michael Grandner's work makes abundantly clear, sleep is a socioeconomic issue. Grandner, a psychologist and sleep medicine researcher, studies the relationship between sleep and health, and the environmental and social factors that shape both of them across a wide range of populations.
We might assume that, when two people with the same sleep habits are in vastly different states of health, genetics are to blame. But Grandner says it's much more likely that environment is behind those differences. Grandner's work is full of data points that drive home that idea. Here's one: The most direct predictor of poor sleep is food insecurity — people who can't afford to put healthy food on the table don't get the rest they need.
"One of the things I have learned from my research on sleep and inequality is that sleep very much exists at the nexus where the physical body and the external world meet," said Grandner. "Our ability to sleep is largely driven by factors that are not always under our control. And that's where the social environment comes in — if someone is balancing work and family life, working late hours out of necessity, they often don't feel like they have time to sleep. And that just makes everyone worse."
His work emphasizes the complex way that demographic factors — including income, race, geographic location and ethnicity — interact with sleep and health. It's not as simple as "more money, more sleep." (Although that ends up being true a lot of the time.) He's found, for instance, that sleep health is generally poor among low-income residents, with the exception of low-income immigrants, who report getting enough, high-quality sleep.
In addition to dissecting the sleep-health-environment equation, Grandner sees it as his job to educate people on what we know about sleep and what they can do to improve their own sleep. "I see it as a moral obligation," said Grandner. "I am getting my research paid for by the NIH and other government agencies, so I think it's my job to help the population feel like they are getting something in return."
15. The Sleuth
Name: Michel A. Cramer Bornemann
Title: Lead investigator - Sleep Forensics Associates
Why they're interesting: The world's foremost expert on crimes committed during sleep
His job almost sounds fake: Michel A. Cramer Bornemann is the go-to investigator for legal cases involving parasomnias, an umbrella term for abnormal sleep behavior including sleepwalking and sex-somnia. When someone invokes the "sleepwalking defense" — meaning they plead not guilty on account of breaking the law in their sleep — Bornemann, a neurologist and former sleep-clinic director, is called in to suss out the situation: Was the defendant really unconscious? Do they have a history of parasomniac activity? Could they have taken precautions to prevent their mid-slumber rampage?
Answering these questions is a formidable challenge; it's impossible to determine, with certainty, whether or not a person was sleepwalking at a specific point in history. But no one knows the world of sleep crimes better than Bornemann.
His formal experience as a sleep-crime investigator dates back to 2006, when he reached out to two other veteran sleep researchers, Carlos Schenck and Mark Mahowald. "I proposed that we develop a formal consulting group," Bornemann said, "to not only be a reputable un-biased objective scientific resource to the legal community, but to also document every criminal case as a means to further our understanding concerning the complexities and spectrum of sleep-related violence."
Bornemann's proposal went over well. With Schenck and Mahowald on board, he founded Sleep Forensics Associates. Over the past 12 years, SFA has consulted for both the defense and prosecution teams on 350 cases involving homicide, assault and battery, rape and theft. And, Bornemann says, a lot has changed since he got into the sleep-crime game.
"At first," said Bornemann, "much testimony related to parasomnias was not admissible in a court of law as the condition was considered novel and not widely accepted within the clinical community. Today, parasomnias have achieved widespread international scientific recognition given...As a result, courtrooms are more likely to consider allowing testimony related to [them]."
Sleep crimes might seem more like fodder for an episode of "Law & Order" than a problem to worry about in real life. But parasomnias should be part of the larger conversation about sleep health because poor sleep habits often set the stage for sleep-movement disorders to emerge. What's more, America's love affair with medicated sleep has given rise to a special class of Ambien-fueled sleep crimes. About 20 percent of Bornemann's caseload, he estimates, now deals with sleep-related violence as a side-effect of Ambien. But, whether or not prescription drugs are involved, sleep crimes represent a tricky fusion of science and the law. And that's why Bornemann works with lawyers and police around the world to figure out when "but I did it in my sleep" is a credible defense and when it's a just a convenient excuse.