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."