Sometimes when I’m lying in my bed falling asleep, a thought will come across my mind: at this moment tens of millions of people are going completely unconscious and immobile and having crazy hallucinations. Because if you think about it, that’s what happens when you fall asleep. And you pretty much go to sleep whenever everybody in your timezone or near your timezone goes to sleep too.
But my guest on today’s podcast argues that we take our current sleep schedule for granted. In fact, it wasn’t until about the middle of the 19th century that what we consider “normal sleep” — sleeping in one big chunk of time between the hours of 10 PM and 8 AM — even became a thing. What caused us to get on this “consolidated” sleep schedule, what was it like before, and what implications does it have for work and relationships?
Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz and the author of the book The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life. Today on the podcast Dr. Wolf-Meyer and I discuss the anthropology of sleep.
- What sleep was like before the 19th century
- The role Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison played in today’s sleeping schedule
- Why insomnia isn’t so much a sleep disorder as a social disorder
- How our American sleep and work schedule has spread to Europe and around the world
- How our sleep/work schedule drives the coffee/energy drink market
- What you can do if your personal sleep schedule doesn’t jive with society’s sleep schedule
- And much more!
The Slumbering Masses isn’t a sleep book that will tell you how to get better sleep, but it provides some much-needed insight into the history and anthropology of why we sleep the way we do. On top of that, it’s a fun, engaging read.
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Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Brett McKay: All right, so tell me if this has happened to you guys. You’re lying in bed at night, right before you doze off to sleep, you have this thought that right now, tens of millions of people across the country, at this exact moment, same as you, are lying down on these rectangular shaped mattresses and are about to be unconscious for the next 8 hours while having hallucinations. That’s what sleep is when you think about it. When you think about it that way, sleep’s kind of weird. It’s kind of weird that we sleep the way we do. I think we take it for granted that you sleep from about 10 until 8 or so, if you wake up late.
Our guest today makes the point that this hasn’t always been the case, and that for most of human’s history, sleep has actually been very unique to communities and to individuals. It wasn’t until about the 19th century, until the whole world basically got on this sleep schedule where you sleep from 10 o’ clock at night until about 7 o’ clock in the morning. You work during the day, no naps. Then you repeat the process. Before then, sleep was much more individualistic. It was unique to different communities. This whole radical transformation of sleep has had profound changes effects on the way we approach life, work, and sleep.
Our guest is named Matthew Wolf-Meyer, he’s a professor of anthropology at University of California Santa Cruz. He’s the author of a very fascinating book called The Slumbering Masses. It’s basically a cultural study an anthropological look at sleep and why we sleep the way we do. In this podcast we discuss when the transformation to sleep as we know today happened. We discuss the medicalization of sleep, and all the things we do to improve our sleep with over the counter medications. Also, the things we use to jolt ourselves away so we can stick to this work schedule that we have. Either through coffee, tea, now energy drinks.
Fascinating discussion, I think you’ll really like it. We even get into what you can do if you have a sleep schedule, where it just doesn’t fit with the norm. The working norm, or the school schedule. What you can do to work with that. Great discussion, think you’ll get a lot out of it, without further ado, Matthew Wolf-Meyer and the slumbering masses.
Matthew Wolf-Meyer, thank you so much for being here. Welcome to the show.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Thanks, I’m glad to be here.
Brett McKay: All right, so, your book, The Slumbering Masses is a book about sleep. It’s different from a lot of the books that have come out about sleep in the past 10 years I’d say. Where it’s all about how to get better sleep, the science of sleep, your book is a cultural study of sleep. The sociology of sleep. What made you want to research the anthropology of sleep in America?
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: It depends how far back you want to go. We’ll probably talk about a lot of the stuff as we go. I was always a problems sleeper, so as a kid, throughout middle school and high school, I had pretty, what I thought were abnormal sleeping times. Going to sleep really late, having to wake up for school, needing to take naps during the day. Then, when I was in college, it gave me the opportunity to tailor a schedule around my sleep. What ended up happening was I got a job working third shift. I worked form like 10 pm until 8 am. Which was okay with me.
Then I would go to school from 8 until 10 o’ clock in the morning. Then go to school from 5 until 8 o’ clock at night. That all totally worked. At the time I had a bunch of coworkers who just could not handle the schedule. Whenever they were off work. On their weekends, they would end up trying to sleep like everybody else did. It was a decade later, as I started to do the research, that I realized how bad of an idea that actually is. At the time I was always attune to different kinds of sleeping.
I always really enjoyed, this was in metro Detroit, at 4 o’ clock in the morning, just being able to step out into the middle of an otherwise very busy street and seeing the world sleeping around and being the one person that was awake. When it came time to actually develop a research project much later, I had initially thought that what I was going to do is write a book about night work. Not just people doing factory work in the middle of the night, but all of the stuff that happens at night in order to make society work throughout the days.
Security guards, police, ambulance drivers, nurses, ER doctors, sanitation workers, construction workers. I thought that I would tell this big story about labor at night. In my initial idea about that project, I thought that I would write one chapter that would be about what everybody else is doing. Everyone else would be sleeping, the way that I would get into that would be going into a sleep clinic. Just by sheer happenstance, there was a piece in the New York Times magazine profiling a sleep center near where I was a gradate student. I got in touch with the director and they invited me over for lunch one day and gave me the tour.
Probably within 10 minutes of being there, I thought, this is the real project. I can do everything that I want to do, just by talking about sleep in American society. The doctors and the researchers that I was spending time with there were all really interested in having an anthropologist hang out with them. They had a bunch of questions, I didn’t know the answer to any of their questions at the time, but I figured that they could task me with answering the questions that they had. It was off to the races from that point. As soon as I got into it, I was like obviously this is the project. The other thing, like you kind of mentioned in the intro.
Nobody has written this book, if you look at the literature out there, there’s a lot of self helpy stuff, there’s a lot of popular science books that are like, this is why we sleep. Although nobody actually really knows why we sleep. The stuff written by scientists. There’s a bunch of books by scientist about sleep, but they’re really uncritical. They accept sleep as it is. I figured there’s a huge window here that needs to be jumped through. I was the guy who jumped through that window.
Brett McKay: Very good. One of the main points you make in the book is, Americans today, sort of take for granted our current sleeping schedule. We all assume that since time immemorial people have went to bed between the hours of 10, around then, and they woke up at 7 or so, by 7 to go to work. You make the case that no, that’s not how sleep was, until about the 19th century. What was sleep like before what’s called consolidated sleep? The 8 hours.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: One of the things that got me started on the project was this book written by a historian named Roger Ekerch called At the Day’s Close. At the end of the book, there is a chapter about, basically a hypothesis that he has that people before industrialization slept in what we now refer to as a bi faced model. He was looking at the UK and some historical documents that he had. What he was hinting at is that people would go to sleep around sundown, they would sleep for a few hours. They would wake up in the middle of the night for a period that could be anywhere between an hour and 4 hours. They would go back to sleep and then wake up around dawn to go to work.
When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense, because it’s not like night time is 8 hours long. Even if it is some of the time, it’s not consistently 8 hours long, nor is it 8 hours long everywhere around the world all the time. The idea that sleep and darkness are necessarily tied together is just wrong on the face of it, right? When you think about the availability of electric light, especially the working classes, don’t have cheap accessible electric light.
In some cases, after the turn of the 20th century. There’s that set of circumstances. I started to look at the historical record in the United States, and particularly the medical monographs and medical pamphlets and medical articles that are published at the end of the 1700’s through the 1800’s. What people are identifying is exactly this pattern of sleep. Right? That people are going to sleep around sundown, they sleep for a few hours, wake up, go back to sleep.
They sometimes refer to it as first sleep and second sleep or first nap and second nap. First slumber, second slumber, that kind of thing. The reason why they’re talking about it is because it’s a problem for the new industrial work schedule. Historically what’s happening is that people are moving from the country side, where they’re working either on their family farm, somebody else’s family farm or in a trade that’s probably owned by someone that they know very intimately because they were living in small settings to big urban centers where they’re one of thousands of strangers working in a factory for somebody that they have no relationship to, right?
In their old work situations, work times vary, if you need to take a nap, you can probably take a nap. If you need to go home early because there’s an emergency, no problem. When you’re working for a large factory where everybody’s anonymous, any of those kinds of variances are fireable offences, right? There’s a long line of people just waiting to take those jobs. People are put into these consolidated work days that are structured by the availability of free sunlight. Electric light’s not available for most of these factories.
There’s some gas lighting, but generally the way the factories are operating is they open at dawn, they close at dusk, and there’s one shift. Everybody works from dawn until dusk. What happens to people’s sleep is that they’re so exhausted at the end of the day that they consolidate their sleep. The idea of consolidated sleep is really something that’s based on a new model of exhaustion. If you were working in a way where you could take a nap whenever you needed to, you’re never as exhausted when you have to stay awake for 16 hours in a stretch.
What happens in the medical literature, is all these doctors are identifying the biphasic model as being a problem. They start to refer to is as insomnia. They start to think about ways to treat that problem. There’s a lot of scare tactics involved too. They’re really trying to shame people from sleeping in a biphasic way. You really see form basically the beginning of American medicine and American industrial capitalism, this tie between medicine and capitalism. Shaping what workers are supposed to do and how they operate.
The thing is that consolidated model of the work day links up with the consolidated model of the school day. For the working classes, what do you do with your kids? You have to send them somewhere. The state basically steps in and gives public education to the working classes in a way that had never been available before. Kids are going to school at the same time that their parents are at work. You slowly see over the course of the 19th century, all of these institutions that we take for granted in American social life abiding by the same set of ideas about time.
By the turn of the 20th century, and this is really the beginning of sleep science as a science. The earliest guy, whose name is Nathaniel Cliteman. He’s a professor of physiology at the University of Chicago. He’s starting to do research on sleep and his assumption is that people sleep in a consolidated way. He’s carrying it into the basis of the science. He’s not allowing napping or variations in sleeping schedules. It’s really what you’re testing is consolidated sleep. What happens is he develops a model of circadian rhythms that’s based on consolidated sleep rather than biphasic sleep.
That’s the model of circadian rhythms that everybody uses to this day. We really don’t know what human sleep would look like outside of the context of some industrial capitalism and the structure around time.
Brett McKay: I want to get back to your point about insomnia and sleep disorder. I think that’s really interesting. What I found fascinating in your book is that yeah, you point out that the way we sleep is primarily economically and productivity driven. You made an interesting point about how Ben Franklin was one of the early guys, early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. One of the things he advocated for consolidated sleep was that it saved money on candles. He went to France and he saw that they wasted all this candle wick partying and carousing in the night. They didn’t get up in the day to go be productive. He said, if they just slept 8 hours, they would save on candles.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Right. If they just slept when it’s dark, rather than having to light everything. The great thing about that essay of his is that he does the math to figure out how much it costs to burn, something like 40,000 candles a week. Which is an insane amount of candles. If you’re a French aristocrat, apparently that’s what you do.
Brett McKay: Yeah, this consolidated sleep model, we take for granted, it was because of cultural and economic changes in American. Going from an agrarian to an industrial economy. You make the point that this American way of sleeping has spread to other countries. Can you talk a little bit about how our idea of sleeping has spread across the world?
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: In 2 ways primarily. First, like I was just talking about in the science, what happens, is scientific models that are invented in the United States get exported elsewhere. You would think that societies where there’s long standing napping traditions like Spain and their siesta culture. Like China, like Taiwan, like Italy. That they would have sleep scientists working under different assumptions, but in fact they just buy into the American model whole hog. It really shapes the science and medicine of sleep around the world.
Secondarily it’s structured around ideas around capitalist work time. We’re recently, maybe not that recently anymore. 10 years ago, in the early stages of the European union, Spain came under a lot of fire, in part from conservative movements within Spain, about getting rid of the siesta, so that they would be more productive like Germany and France and England. What they do in order to make that happen is they pass laws that all state agencies like the postal service only operates between 9 and 5 o’ clock.
Everybody else has to sync up to that time. We see that kind of synchronization pressure happen in a variety of ways. One of the things that I was really interested in is the synchronization between the United States and call centers in India and the Philippines too. What we’ve exported to them in order to harness there labor is our calendar and our work week. They get synced up in a kind of inverted way to our work time, so that they’re awake while we’re awake. They’re asleep while everybody else in their society is awake.
They abide by our holidays. Our work week, if you look at how it maps on to their work week, is ours different. Yet they’re working on their Sundays in order to be available on our Mondays. There’s really pervasive in subtle ways that our ideas about sleep have structured other societies.
Brett McKay: Going back to this idea of sleeping disorders, because before sleep science, there really wasn’t sleep disorders. Insomnia didn’t really exist because people were in a biphasic model. The point in the book, or the case that sleeping disorders aren’t so much, well they are a health issue, but they’re also a social problem. That’s the thing that drives people to sleep centers and to medication. Can you explain that a little bit? How are sleep disorders social problems?
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: One really quick thing, we actually have pretty good descriptions of a lot of sleep disorders, that goes back at least to 1820. There’s a Scottish Physician named Robert McNash who writes this book called The Philosophy of Sleep. He is basically coming up with descriptions for insomnia and narcolepsy and drowsiness of various kinds. He basically gets written out of the history of sleep science and medicine. I’m not entirely sure why. I think part of it is that by the conditions of the 1820’s all of these kinds of medical experiences are very, very rare.
It’s not until the 1840’s and really the 1880’s that something like insomnia is something that’s generalization to broad spots of the population and that medicine is more and more available to people more broadly. In terms of that kind of how our sleep disorders, social disorders probably the best examples are the ones that are about schedules for sleep interfering for work and for school. For example, one of the stories that I often tell, and I’ll tell again, is that at the sleep clinic, they would often see adolescents or teenagers who had problems waking up for public school time.
They couldn’t get to school by 7:30 in the morning, it was probably more like 10 o’ clock. What they had done is figured out what the school start times for all of the schools in the area were. They would figure out what an individual student would wake up around and what kind of sleep they would need. They would recommend them to particular schools. There were a bunch of kids who couldn’t wake up until 10 o’ clock in the morning who went to Catholic school despite not being Catholic, because it fit their sleep schedule.
The alternative is that you end up having to wake up to go to school at 7:30 and you’re a teenager who needs provigil or something else in order to stay awake. Or drink coffee or whatever. Your sleeping problem is really a kind of mismatch between your biological desire for sleep and the institutional times that are normative. If we just had different institutional times, or even flexible institutional times, then you would see far fewer sleep disorders in society.
Which doesn’t mean that narcolepsy would go away, there are very clear biological conditions that lead to narcolepsy. It’s always a challenge. You could have more tolerant institutions that would allow people to be sleepy at all sorts of different times of the day.
Brett McKay: We’ll get back to that. I want to get back to that, what we can do about our different sleeping schedules and trying to fit into work and school. You also made the point that in the past 10 years there’s been this proliferation of medications to get us awake and to put us to sleep. A lot of people are on this viscous cycle where they’ll take an energy drink to wake up or a pot of coffee. Then they keep drinking during the day, so they stay awake. Then at night, they take some sort of medicine to help them fall asleep. What’s going on there? Is this something that’s just recent or was this something that started a century ago? Or decades ago.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: This seems pretty recent. It seems like a real intensification of things that have been happening for a long time. It’s not like it’s totally new, but the intensity of it is pretty new. One of my favorite books that I’ll plug is called Sweetness in Power, by an anthropologist named Sidney Mince. The story that he tells is that industrialization in Europe really depends on exporting sugar and coffee and tea from the Caribbean, in order to keep workers awake throughout the day. Right? The idea of tea time in Britain is really based on the idea that you could either take a nap or you drink some caffeine at that point in the day.
We’ve lost taking those napes and accepted having some caffeine in the afternoon in order to stay awake for the rest of the work day right? Coffee or caffenation really and sugar have always been tied to labor as we know it. The way that we’re medicalizing the sleep and kind of alertness these days is much more intense. You can just think about the widespread popularity of Starbucks. 20 years ago, there were not coffee shops the way that there are now, right? Now there’s Starbucks everywhere. This incitement to always be caffeinated is something that’s really pervasive right?
If you look at the numbers about people who have problems sleeping at night, somewhere like a third of Americans, the numbers change a little bit, but it’s a third to almost a half of Americans complain about problems falling asleep or staying asleep in any given year. People have at least intermittent insomnia. There’s more and more people who are using off label sleep aids, so Tylenol PM rather than Lunesta or Ambien, or NyQuil. Which is a terrible idea, but there are a variety of ways that people are helping themselves get to sleep and also keeping themselves awake throughout the day.
It becomes this vicious cycle because if you’re taking more and more Ambien, you need more and more coffee to offset the debt that you’re accruing. What’s sometimes referred to as sleep drunkenness, that you wake up and you’re still sleepy so you need more and more coffee. There are stories in the book about this one guy who reports to his sleep doctor that he drinks something like 4 pots of coffee a day.
Brett McKay: Like 5 pots yeah.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: That’s 16 cups of coffee a day, right? That’s a profound amount of caffeine to be putting into your system.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: The assumption is that we need to do it in order to meet the work needs that we have, right? The alternative might be that you have workplace napping. Instead of having coffee free for everybody, that you give people a place to go take a nap. There’s some work places that have experimented with that, but the big problem if they run into is that people don’t want to be the napper. They don’t want to be the guy who’s sleeping at his desk, or in some cases what they’ll do is they’ll take an office and they’ll turn it into a napping space.
You don’t want to be the guy that’s going into the napping space or coming out of the napping space. A lot of the people that I talk to about napping at work, they’re like, “I just will get in my car, go to the nearest fast food place, and sleep in the parking lot. Rather than have my coworkers see me sleep.” There’s really, we need an attitude shift about sleeping in some respects.
Brett McKay: I think it’s funny about NyQuil is that they have ZZZquil now. Everyone’s just taking this to go to sleep, they don’t really have the flu of a cold. Let’s just make something with alcohol or whatever that drug is that makes you sleepy. I think it’s interesting with the nap thing in businesses that’s sort of becoming a thing. It’s not because businesses are, they want to take care of their employees, they’re doing it for productivity. I think it’s kind of ironic, decades ago, they’re like no napping, you need to work, be productive. Now they’re saying, nap because you’re going to be more productive and we can get more out of you.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: That’s the paradox of it, is that you as an employee might really want to take a nap. What employers have discovered is that if you take that nap, they’ll get way more labor out of you for free. If you’re a salaried employee, by 5 o’ clock, you just want to go home. If you take a nap at 2:30, and you wake up at 3, you’re good until 7 or 8 o’ clock at night, right? Maybe even later than that. A lot of businesses realize that they can get more work out of people just by giving them a nap allowance, pretty much. I had also talked to a bunch of people at a law firm where they had a napping facility and they all realized that they were self exploiting.
They had started staying later and later, and they collectively decided to stop using the napping facilities. They just wanted to go home. There is this kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t around the workplace nap.
Brett McKay: Besides using medication for off label uses, Tylenol PM or NyQuil to go to sleep. There’s also a lot of entrepreneurs, you read about this a lot, entrepreneurs, business executives, high powered attorneys who are taking very powerful stimulating drugs that are used for people who have severe sleep disorders, like Providgil or Medaphenol. Not because they have a problem with sleep or waking up, they just want to stay awake longer so they can get more work done.
Have you looked into, there’s a cult of Medaphenol on the internet.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Yeah, and you know students talk about it all the time.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Among my students, I’ve seen over the last 10 years, total ignorance to Provigil, to widespread knowledge about it and sometimes use of it. Ritalin drugs, for a long time, only people with Ritalin use those drugs, and now it’s like, everybody does it during exams right? There’s a lot of people who swear by Provigil and the new version of it which is called Newvigil. It’s used by the military to keep people awake for a while. It’s expensive. I think one of the real challenges around it is that what we see in the off label pharmeceuticalization of every day life.
Some of these things are available to certain classes of people, and they’re not available to other classes of people. Sure, if you’re an elite business person, you can get your doctor to write you a prescription for Newvigil, but most of us don’t have access to that, right? Instead, we drink a bunch of caffeine to keep up with people who are using that kind of drug. Nobody really knows what the long term effects of drugs like that are to them.
Brett McKay: Yeah, because it’s only been back like 10 years ago right?
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Yeah, even the military has kind of backed away from using it quite so much because they’re not sure what the effects of it are going to be. It’s a new kind of stimulant for the central nervous system. There’s some doubts about what it’s effects will be. In some cases, what people might be doing is getting some kind of gain in the short term, but really facing neurological problems in the long term. We just kind of have to wait and see.
Brett McKay: Yeah, well speaking of this division between individuals who can afford drugs to keep them awake and be super productive and individuals who can’t. Let’s talk about the future of sleep. You kind of allude to this a little in your book. No one really knows the future of sleep, but it seems like there’s this push to end sleep. Right? Amongst a certain group of people so they can be super productive all the time. What is the future of sleep? Is that going to happen? Are we going to genetically modify ourselves where we don’t need sleep anymore?
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: I think the future of sleep is to keep asking about the future of sleep.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: It’s one of the things that I track in the book. People have been asking about the future of sleep since at least the 20th century. There’s early stuff about how do you maximize your sleep. Can you learn a foreign language in your sleep? Which, you still see people talking about, can you learn while you’re sleeping, not really. Can we get rid of sleep all together? Probably not. If you think about life on Earth, everything sleeps. Plants sleep, every other animal species sleep. We sleep. We’re not entirely sure what sleep does. We do know it has some pretty important effects on our memory and our ability to learn new things. Our stress levels.
If you’re not sleeping really well, you could get stressed out way more easily. The question might be, if we get rid of sleep, at what cost? Chances are, if we get rid of sleep, we’re not going to be the humans that we are today. We’re going to look very different. There’s the book series by Nancy Kress called Beggars in Spain, where they do genetically modify humans to get rid of sleep. Her presumption is that when you lose sleeping, you lose basically creative potential. There’s something about sleeping and dreaming that’s really important to our ability to create and even kind of be human.
The people who get rid of sleep in her world are cold, calculating computer people, right? That might index us anxiety about what we would actually be losing when we lose sleep. That being said, the future of sleep, might be tinkering with it. One of the scientists that I find really interesting is this Italian, a guy named Claudia Stampe who is a yacht racer and he does these experiments on what he refers to as ultra short sleep. It’s basically cat napping for humans that you’re awake for a short period, you go to sleep for a short period. You’re awake for a short period. You don’t have long sleeping periods.
Brett McKay: It’s like polyphasic sleep.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Right, yeah. I think it’s still online, there’s this Frontline episode, I thin that he was on. You can find this footage of him running this experiment with an undergraduate, where the kid has to wake up to a performance test every 2 hours, then he goes back to sleep. After about 30 days, it’s just getting harder and harder for this kid to wake up. He’s pretty groggy when he does get up. He can still actually get through his performance tests pretty well.
Which points to this idea that maybe we can organize sleep differently. The 24 hour society might not be everybody being awake all the time. It might be that some people are going to be able to organize their work in ways that are different than this consolidated work and sleep period.
Brett McKay: Yeah, didn’t Kramer, on Seinfield, do an experiment with that? It didn’t work out for him.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Yeah, they call it the, it’s how Leonardo DaVinci apparently slept. Half an hour every 4 hours. It really doesn’t work out for Kramer.
Brett McKay: Doesn’t work out for him. Yeah, the whole idea of getting rid of sleep. I don’t know what I could do with myself, honestly. I would be bored out of my mind. One of the reasons I enjoy sleep is because it takes up time when I have nothing else going on.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: That’s the thing that, I love my family.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: We spend a lot of time together already. The prospect of spending 8 more hours a day with my 4 year-old-son is a crazy prospect. If we did get to the point where we were awake all the time, we would have to really restructure what society looks like. It doesn’t mean that we would have 8 hours of recreation. We would probably be finding other ways to organize what we’re doing. That’s what I mean, if we get rid of sleep, we’re not going to be the human beings that we are today. Everything is going to change if we got rid of sleep.
Brett McKay: I don’t know, I think your book came out right before the uptake in tracking devices. Where you can track your steps, there’s even devices where you can track your sleep. This whole quantified self thing. This idea of being able to track, not only how many hours of sleep, but your quality of sleep. I even bought one of those ZIO things, you strap it to your head and it reads your brainwaves. Does this sort of entrench people more into the idea that you okay, you need to sleep 8 hours straight or 9 hours. Or does it give people information where they an start tinkering with their own sleep schedule?
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: I think it does both. The thing that I would point to is that there are cultural assumptions embedded in all of this technology. If the technology really assumes that consolidated sleep is the only way that you’re getting good sleep, then it’s probably a problem. If the technology is a little more flexible and is able to work with whatever kind of sleep schedule you want to work towards. Then it might be a little more liberatory.
One of the things that I tell people to do, and this is based on clinical practice, is that if you really want to figure out what kind of sleeper you are, you need probably 2 weeks of not waking up to an alarm clock. What the project is, is that you go to sleep when you’re tired, you time how long you go to sleep for, you are awake when you’re awake and maybe you have a cup of coffee, but you don’t drink lots of caffeine. You also don’t drink a lot of alcohol or anything like that. You’re just trying to isolate what your sleep is actually like.
One of the things that you can discern by doing that is what an actual sleep period is. If you look at what the physiology of sleep is you have these roughly 2 hour periods of moving through the different stages of sleep. Our sleep is always kind of built up of a certain number of those periods. When you talk about consolidated sleep. We’re thinking about 4 of those periods smashed together, because the 2 hour number is pretty soft. It can be anywhere between an hour and a half or 3 hours that a sleep period is. You always want to be sleeping in factors of that period. Right?
If you have a technology that helps you figure out what your sleep period actually is and is helping you abide by a factor of those periods, then you’re probably using that technology pretty well. It’s decent technology, right? If you’re being shamed by your technology because you’re not sleeping 8 hours at night. That’s a problem.
Brett McKay: I think the ZIO does that, because it’ll give you a sleep score, it’s not giving suggestions, like you need to do this to improve your sleep. I will do that algorithm.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Yeah, right. The other thing, apps on your phone that are supposed to monitor how well you’re sleeping by putting it under your pillow. Probably not worth the money. Even, it’s called actigraphy technology and it’s a bracelet that people put on in order to clinically tract their movements. You can look at somebody’s actigraphy report to see when they’re awake or asleep pretty much. If you’re a really active sleeper, it’s a bad technology for you. If you sit at a desk all day and you don’t move your left arm very much, it’s also bad technology.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s happened to me with the Fit Bit. I’ll be sitting, writing for 2 hours and it’ll say, “You were taking a nap.” It’s like no I wasn’t, I was writing.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Yeah, I think that’s one of those things, that people always need to think about. What is the cultural assumption embedded in technology? The whole quantified self stuff, I’m a little skeptical of more broadly. It really is emphasizing these ideas about productivity. I think that ideas about being productive are ways that we tie ourselves to self exploitation. If all we’re thinking about is whether or not we’re being productive, we have sold out to the system.
Brett McKay: Sold your soul. I mean, here’s the question, I know your book is primarily descriptive, and it’s not prescriptive, and you’ve alluded to what people can do. What if you have a sleep schedule that just doesn’t fit the norm? What can you do? Do you think technology is giving us more flexibility in how we work and how we school that will allow us to change our schedules so it fits our personal sleep schedule?
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: For some people, yes. One of the recommendations that I make is that we need to think about flex time for all the institutions that we interact with. Some workplaces have this idea that you can come into work late and work late. Or you can take a day off and make that day up some other way. That flexibility in the schedule is something that, historically has really been for the most elite workers right? It provides us a model for thinking about how we might structure institutional time across different kinds of work places, within schools especially. Having that model in schools would be great.
You can also think about it related to family and recreation and stuff like that. We need a little more flexibility in order to address the different styles of sleep that people have. The challenge in that kind of recommendation is that it’s really, because it’s so tied to elite labor in the past, it’s difficult to get other kinds of labor on board with that schedule, right? If we want to pick on Starbucks, because it’s a low paying job, they’re going to give you the hours that they can give you. If you can’t work those hours then you’re just going to get fired right?
What we might need to think about is the careful management of a work population. If you find workers that are good in the morning and bad at night, then you schedule them in the morning, and you schedule other workers at night. It depends on taking seriously, peoples variation in sleep and how it might actually fit into scheduling work time. I think for the so called creative class, technology makes things a lot easier, right? We can telecommute all the time. Or you can work flexible hours. The real question is what do we do with everybody else?
Everybody else are also the people who have the worst health insurance. They’re probably the most likely to self medicate through ZZZQuil or alcohol or amphetamines or whatever else. If you really want a equitable society, you need to think about how we arranged school time and work time and family time in a way that’s in some ways agreeable to everybody. Instead of having this static schedule, we need to think about what can we actually do in order to make it a little more livable.
Brett McKay: Interesting. Matthew, it’s been a fascinating discussion, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Dr. Wolf-Meyer: Thanks Brett, it’s been a pleasure for me too.
Brett McKay: Our guest today was Matthew J Wolf-Meyer. He is the author of the book The Slumbering Masses. You can find that on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. That wraps up another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.