by Lily Stoicheff on Sep 25, 2012
People spend roughly a third of their lives sleeping—about 26 years, based on the average life expectancy. So why are we so tired? And as we reach for coffee, energy drinks and pills to counter our restlessness and insomnia, how much do we really know about those eightish hours between night and day?
Matthew Wolf-Meyer, a professor of anthropology at UCSC, has been fascinated by the way Americans sleep for most of his life, and over the past 10 years has collected his findings for his new book, The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and the Modern American Life. His conclusion? We should be talking a lot more about why we sleep the way we do.
Wolf-Meyer’s interest in the subject started as an undergrad while working the third shift at Kinko’s.
“I was always okay with third shift,” he says. “I would go to work and go to sleep at 8am, and wake up at 5pm and get on with the rest of my day. But the rest of the people around me were doing it for the meager financial benefit, and struggled physically. I stopped because I started teaching at an elementary school and I had a total reversal. I had to wake up at 6:30 in the morning, and it was excruciating to me.”
While working on his dissertation, he happened to read about a sleep clinic right around the corner from his New York apartment. A visit to the facility made it clear that what was originally supposed to be a single chapter on sleep needed to be a book.
“The clinicians were talking about cases, and what they had seen and case literature. Like a lot of people, I think, I was blind to the variation of sleep,” he says. “I have intermittent insomnia. I have slept in weird ways all my life. I’ve had sleeping schedules that destroyed relationships. But I heard clinicians talking about even more extremes in the spectrum, between normal sleep that everyone’s fine with to behavior disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy. I just wasn’t aware of it.”
Wolf-Meyer spent five years at the clinic interviewing patients and attending support groups for people with restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea and narcolepsy. He then went to Chicago to do archival work while continuing to do interviews and visit support groups.
In his new book, he lays out how, over the past 200 years, our economy has dictated when and how we sleep. Working from 9 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock in the evening has generated an “11 to 7” sleep cycle, where individuals experience uninterrupted sleep through the night and don’t sleep during the day. Most clinicians would consider this “normal,” and most Americans strive to adhere to this system. And yet, says Wolf-Meyer, there is evidence all around us to suggest that this is not the ideal sleeping pattern for millions of people.
“When you start to talk to people or read one of the many surveys that have been published in the last decade about how people sleep, you see that Americans sleep anywhere between 4 and 12 hours in a 24-hour period. Some people are sleeping bi-phasically, meaning they sleep a few hours at night and a few hours in the middle of the day. Some people sleep in a very erratic fashion, like doctors and truck drivers, where they’ll be awake for 36 hours and sleep for 12 hours,” explains Wolf-Meyer.
A child’s sleep needs are different than an adolescent, and both are unique from the needs of adults. Ultimately, the model we think of as “normal sleep” doesn’t match up with our own experiences very often.
But it’s Americans that are adapting, not the schedule, and the cure often has an Rx on the label.