Snooze control

Exploration of sleep-related issues offers few answers, but plenty of captivating questions


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Macbeth, racked by guilt immediately after he murdered his king, laments that “the innocent sleep, sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care… sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds.” His insomnia is easily explained.

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Macbeth, racked by guilt immediately after he murdered his king, laments that “the innocent sleep, sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care… sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds.” His insomnia is easily explained.

Most sleeplessness is not so simple. Amsterdam-based journalist and author Bregje Hofstede chronicles her decade-long insomnia, and her quest for answers, in this book, a very interesting research project translated by Alice Tetley-Paul.

Reporting her interviews and copious investigations, as well as her own experience, Hofstede ranges through physical, psychological and cultural ideas and attitudes toward sleeplessness. Each chapter is assigned an hour: from midnight — 0:00 — to the following midnight.

As Shakespeare knew, sleep rejuvenates, bathes us of our “sore labour.” Sleep deprivation causes all manner of transient and permanent harms. This has led to less and less of the idea that sleep is a waste of time, or that successful people don’t sleep much.

In fact, all living creatures seem to need some time of rest, although why this is so is not clearly understood, as explored in 01:00: All Animals Sleep.

A staggering and increasing number of people report difficulty sleeping, including clinically identified insomnia. However, a surprising amount of research has been done on good sleepers, rather than focusing on insomniacs.

This fact leads to some suspect conclusions, such as the necessity to avoid screen-based blue light before bed.

“The light intensity that a tablet or telephone emits is probably much too small to influence your internal clock,” Hofstede comments. A footnote points out that “bright light keeps you up longer at night, but participants in such studies were wearing diving masks with LEDs in them… not a particularly good representation of the light from your phone.”

Still, Hofstede says, “using your phone a lot, especially before bedtime, doesn’t help. But is that because of the light? Or what enters your mind via that light?”

Much research — and advice for better sleep — focuses on physical issues, less caffeine, restful sounds and aromas, etc.

Sleeping pills, she quotes neuroscientist Eus van Somerenas saying, are basically “anti-wake medication” that “make you no longer realize that you aren’t sleeping.”

“And unfortunately,” Hofstede concludes, “the ‘artificial sleep’ they provide fails to create the healthy, restorative effect of real sleep.”

The final chapters (20:00-23:00) examine What is Keeping You Up?: Money, Time, Place and Others.

Hofstede presents the disparity of sleep problems between different racial, sexual and class groups, noting that cause and effect are not necessarily clear. Are some identity groups sleeping poorly because of financial issues or discrimination?

Do our connections to nature or feelings of belonging influence our ability to get a good night’s sleep? Are we more anxious because we can’t sleep, or is our sleep deprivation exacerbating our anxiety? Many of the questions and conclusions in her search are confusing, as it’s uncertain which are the causes and which are the effects.

Hofstede found that simplifying her life significantly, by moving to an old house in rural France, greatly alleviated her insomnia and that of her boyfriend. Their less hectic lifestyle resulted in better rest.

Hearing of her research and attempts to mitigate sleeplessness, “an acquaintance from our village… a man of few words…summarized: ‘So, you need to be happy in order to sleep.’”

Which comes first: sleep, or happiness? Hofstede concludes “Ultimately, the question of sleep asks: in what kind of a world do we want to live?”

Her engaging account, while short on suggestions, gives one a lot to sleep on.

Bill Rambo teaches at the Laureate Academy in St. Norbert. He sometimes struggles to sleep, but nonetheless considers himself quite happy.

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