Smart Sleep

The mythology, technology, and commercialism of our slumbers.

Smart Sleep

The mythology, technology, and commercialism of our slumbers.

In Greek mythology Hypnos was the god of sleep. Born of mother Nyx (night) and father Erebus (darkness), Hypnos lived with his twin brother in the underworld caves.

His brother’s name was Thanatos — the god of death.

The underworld caves received no sunlight or moonlight. They were completely silent, and surrounded by poppies and other sleep-producing plants. Hypnos was said to be a calm and gentle god who helped mortal humans in their time of need. His name is, of course, the origin of the word hypnosis.

The average person spends a third of their life sleeping. This is a natural state of mind, just like being awake. It involves altered consciousness, less sensory activity, reduced muscle activity, and, of course, reduced interactions with surroundings.

There are two basic types of sleep: REM sleep and non-REM sleep (which has three different stages) and all are linked to specific brain waves and neuronal activity. If you plug someone into a brain scanner while sleeping, you’ll begin to notice patterns. The three stages of non-REM sleep take up most of your night, and they’re pretty straightforward: feeling drowsy, light sleep, and the deep sleep you need to feel refreshed in the morning.

But then there’s REM sleep, which is a lot more interesting.

Also known as paradoxical sleep, REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes after you close your eyes. Most of your dreaming (or nightmares) occur during this time, while your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids and your arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralysed. (There’s a reason for the paralysis: it prevents you from acting out your dreams. And when it doesn’t work well, you end up with thrashing around or sleepwalking).

The sleep cycle alternates between non-REM and REM sleep, and repeats around every 90 minutes. So you’d have about 4–6 cycles in a good night’s sleep.

A good night’s sleep. That’s an oft-used phrase, and with good reason. While it seems like just an inefficient switching-off of the self, there are actually many important things going on inside.

Some people are natural short-sleepers. They don’t close their eyes for very long, but don’t suffer any of the sleep-deprivation health effects either. Unless you fall in that special category, however, missing out on sleep could bring on a host of consequences: cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s, metabolic problems and a weakened immune system, to name a few.

No wonder, then that sleep has been given an important place in popular culture. One can trace back to the words of William Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth, unable to sleep because of all his worries:

O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Going forward to the 80s, sleep became more of an enemy of power than a friend. “Money never sleeps,” proclaimed infamous Wall Street financier Gordon Gekko. Striving for “efficiency”, many people sacrificed sleep in favour of “getting things done”.

Finally in the 2010s Arianna Huffington wrote “The sleep revolution”, a rational narrative on the importance of sleep to our mental, emotional and physical health. Now there’s even such a thing as “sleep market”, with an estimated value of $84.9 billion.

How do we decide when to sleep? It starts with the hypothalamus, a peanut-sized structure deep inside the brain. Among its many parts is the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN, a thousand-cell cluster with a hotline to your eyes. It tracks how much light you’ve been getting, and coordinates with your brain-stem to transition between wakefulness and sleep.

The SCN doesn’t just blindly follow the light, though. It keeps rough track of the 24-hour cycle, and has been dubbed the “master clock” of your nervous system.

The brain-stem and hypothalamus coordinate to produce a brain chemical called GABA which reduces their “what’s happening in the world” region. GABA is a versatile chemical. It works to influence mood and anxiety, and there’s even a GABA-producing microbe that, people suspect, makes rats so fearless they walk straight into the jaws of a cat.

It’s not just microbes: a 2020 study found that GABA is also increased when doing yoga — with beneficial effects this time.

As meditation has gained greater mainstream popularity as a pillar of wellness, mindfulness apps are offering services meant to induce — you guessed it — sleep. Meditation app Headspace, offers guided meditation programs to help you sleep. Pzizz is a London-based app specialising in composing “psycho-acoustic” lullabies to soothe your mind. Calm meditation app unicorn — which was named app of the Year in 2017 by Apple — offers meditation “Sleep Stories” for anxiety relief, stress, and all sorts of daily issues you tend to face.

But it’s not just about falling asleep; people also have trouble finding out where they can sleep. Once again, startups have come to the rescue.

New York-based Nap York, offers a quiet cafe away from the hustle and bustle of city life, as well as sleep pods for napping, yoga and meditation classes. Los Angeles’ Spa Lé La offers a nap room for 25 minutes for $40. London’s Pop & Rest and Tokyo’s Nescafe Harajuku provide nap pods and beds for stressed city workers.

To return to GABA: that’s just the first step in falling asleep. Next comes your pineal gland. A gland shaped like…I was going to say “like a pea”, but “like a pine-cone” is probably more appropriate, since that’s where it gets its name. Pine, pineal — get it?

The pineal gland is sometimes called the “third eye”, because while it can’t see detailed pictures like our real eyes, it can at least make out when there’s light and when there isn’t, perhaps like what early earthworms and other creatures had before they grew full-blown eyes. (But in this case, the knowledge of light comes from your eyes via the optic nerve and hypothalamus, so it’s not such a spectacular feat after all).

While the hypothalamus and brain-stem are busy escorting your body to dreamland, the pineal gland pitches in by ramping up production of melatonin. Melatonin is always around in small quantities, helping you to stay awake, but when it reaches higher levels it makes you go to sleep instead. Does that mean sleep is a higher level than wakefulness? I’ll leave that question to the philosophers for now.

Higher level or not, commercialisation has crept in here too. Melatonin supplements promising a good night’s sleep, by companies like HUM Nutrition, have been around for years. Now, vaporizers can deliver melatonin even faster than a tablet, straight to the bloodstream.

Remember the story of the princess and the pea? The royal girl was so delicate that, though she was sleeping on a tall pile of feather-beds, she still got bruised by the tiny pea placed right at the bottom.

Today’s people aren’t so delicate — though maybe they’d notice a pine-cone — but that hasn’t stopped companies from making it easier to sleep. The Italian startup Balluga has released a smart bed that includes an anti-snoring system, while London-based sleeptech startup Simba has produced the first dual spring and memory foam mattress of its kind. And the princess would be please to hear of the Sleep Number 360 smart bed, designed to sense shifts in the body and continually adjust the mattress pad’s temperature and positioning throughout the night.

Meanwhile, Finnish startup Oura offers a ring which measures pulse waveforms, heart rates and body temperature and creates charts for the user to compare.

To know the scale of the industry, look no further than New York mattress firm Casper. Valued at $1.1 billion six years after its launch in 2013, its initiatives include a quarterly print magazine, fitness and wellness partnerships, and most recently its launch of The Dreamery — a nap lounge featuring nap pods, complementary beverages, and other post-nap amenities. American Airlines announced a partnership with Casper to provide its complimentary sleeping products on longer flights, for first-class fliers and some premium-economy ones too.

Some people would be repelled by all this. Is putting so much effort into naps even worthwhile? But if you’re wondering “To sleep or not to sleep”, that is the question, you won’t like the answer!

Researchers from Boston University have discovered that if you’re not getting enough sleep your brain won’t have adequate time to clear out toxins. These toxins — specifically, beta-amyloids and tau proteins — could over time speed up the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, during the slow-wave sleep phase your brain may actually be taking a long bath in watery cerebrospinal fluid, to wash out all the accumulated gunk.

But that’s not all.

Not sleeping will also affect your immune system and its ability to control infections, cancer and other sickness, because sleep-time for you is work-time for it. What’s more, the two hormones in your body that control the feelings of hunger and satiety will get disrupted too. The result? You’ll end up eating more, leading to increased fat storage and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

Don’t worry, sleep is not just a battle for your health. During this time, your brain makes decisions, creates and consolidates memories, makes creative connections, and even learn and practices how to perform physical tasks.

Although everyone vaguely knows the benefits of sleep, it’s often hard to catch up. You just have to get the work done, so you stay up late once…and again…and again. The irony is, taking time off to sleep would actually make you more productive, not less.

To counter this problem, some companies have taken to installing sleeping pods in their workspaces.

The UK’s National Health Service recently started installing these futuristic devices, where doctors could take a moments’ respite from their frantic coronavirus-induced schedules.

Sleeping pods such as the ones developed by GoSleep are now available in a growing number of international airports. Speaking of travel, startup LumosTech has launched a mask that tailors consumer’s sleep to their schedule in order in avoid the effects of jetlag. Other brands are offering sleep light masks and light therapy goggles to combat jet lag while travelling.

Hypnos, the ancient god of sleep, now has the new title of “sleep ambassador”. You can find him in wellness-focused hotels like Six Senses Spas, where he curates guests’ sleep experience and environment.

Back then, Hypnos would lull you to sleep in a cave where no light was cast by the sun or the moon, and in front of which you would find poppies and other sleep-inducing plants. Today, major chains like Marriott and Hyatt are using IoT to create connected hotel rooms with features like smart lighting for better sleep. Meanwhile, Westin offers a “Sleep Well Menu” that promotes a better rest through a curated list of sleep-enhancing super-foods on their room service menu.

Hypnos and his wife Pasithea had a number of sons called the Oneiroi, who were the bringers of your dreams. The Oneiroi live only in your REM sleep. Dr Hobson, a Harvard psychiatrist and sleep researcher, said your dreams represent a parallel consciousness state that is running continuously, but which is normally suppressed while you are awake. If Oneiroi bring forth your dreams, and dreams are a parallel consciousness, that surely makes Oneiroi the sons of gods!

Sleep, it seems, has suddenly become very popular. And very expensive. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sleep is something we’ve been doing for millennia, and there’s nothing stopping us from doing it right now. Look around, find a cozy spot, and settle in.

Because your future, as they say, depends on your dreams.