Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Comfort blanket

It's the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness... oh, and getting the electric blanket checked. This is the time of year when safety officials set up events to check blankets - invariably finding that many of them are dodgy.

It might still seem too warm to even think about electric blankets, but give it a few months and they will be the best friend you ever had. On a cold night, in the miserable damp of a city winter, there is nothing finer than stretching out in the warm nest of the electric blanket. It makes going to bed a moment to savour. There's that slightly singed smell and that curvaceous reassurance of the heated quilt.

It's also not widely known that electric blankets are a spin-off from wartime technology, the materials developed to keep Second World War aircrews warm in freezing unheated planes. There had been earlier versions used in TB clinics, but it was wartime that fast-forwarded their arrival as a consumer product.

They weren't cheap either. The first mass-market electric blankets, on sale in 1946, retailed at around $40.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Not enough time to sleep

I was loading the dishwasher this morning when I noticed that the latest dishwasher tablets included a spectacular new time-saving invention. They no longer had to be taken out of their plastic wrapping. The whole lot could be shoved in where the wrapper would melt away. "Less hassle" promised the advertising flannel on the box.

How much hassle was it really to pull off a wrapper? What was I going to do with the massive amount of time I was going to save, maybe as much as six or seven seconds?

When I was growing up we didn't have a dishwasher, no one did except in homes of the future featured on Tomorrow's World. Instead we had to use our hands. And so in terms of time-saving, we should have hours more spare time, now that the washing up is done for us by a machine. Not to machine a washing machine, the microwave, online shopping...

Except the more time-saving devices we have, right up to self-unwrapping dishwasher tablets, the less time we seem to have. A survey of commuters published this morning said that if they had one hour extra each day the most popular activity for this extra time would be sleeping. They were completely knackered.

So how is it that in a world so perfectly evolved that we no longer have to pick plastic from dishwasher tablets that we don't even have enough time to sleep, that most basic of physical necessities?

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Pyjamas day and night

There's a classic of the My Drug Hell genre running in the newspapers, as they recount the problems faced by Whitney Houston. But what seems to have really outraged people is the claim that she spent seven months in her pyjamas. In a dodgy tracksuit day and night would have been fine, all-purpose denim would have passed without comment... but pyjamas. Now that's just plain immoral.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The joys of pandiculation

It's one of my favourite words. "Pandiculation." It's that type of huge yawn where you stretch your arms upwards to the heavens and at the same time stretch out your back and maybe even, on special occasions, your legs too. It's yawning with your entire body.

It's one of those physical pleasures, like scratching an itch, that everyone enjoys. Yawning isn't really about getting in extra oxygen - and there are all kinds of theories about its purpose. But increasingly it's being looked at as a social response, yawning being triggered not by any physical need, but because we're all copycats. When someone else yawns, we yawn.

That goes for animals too. Dogs, who sleep all the time and so aren't even remotely sleep deprived, are always yawning. Researchers have found that what prompts this is hanging around with yawning humans. They're copying us.

Researchers in the United States this week have taken this a step further. Not only are animals inspired to yawn by other creatures, but an experiment wanted to find whether chimpanzees could be made to yawn by a cartoon. Guess what? The chimps watching a cartoon of chimps yawning started to yawn. It's contagious.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Sleeping together

How is it that in adulthood you end up with less personal space than in childhood? I had my own room growing up, now all my stuff is crammed in cupboards that seem to get smaller and more overcrowded every year.

Sharing a bed is part of this grown up life. But a leading sleep researcher, Neil Stanley, says that we should consider the joys of sleeping apart. The British Science Festival heard suggestions that sleep is less likely to be disturbed when couples sleep in separate beds. It might feel as though sleeping together is more comfortable and reassuring, but apparently we end up wrecking each others' shut-eye.

It's interesting how the idea of living together has becomes so associated with sleeping together. Aristocrats in previous centuries would have had their own separate sleeping quarters, there was no assumption that his lordship and her ladyship would have to kip on the same pillow.

It was poor families in cramped houses that were forced to share beds. And sharing a bed didn't necessarily mean anything romantic. Large families were squashed into a single bed, strangers staying at inns might be expected to share a bed. Pepys records sharing a bed with friends who stayed over.

There were also pungent words to describe lots of people sharing a bed or a sleeping place together: "Pigging" and "Chumming."

Monday, 7 September 2009

Heart breaker

As if insomnia wasn't cruel enough a punishment, research from the University of Montreal suggests that the nightly ordeal of the sleepless is also seriously bad for their hearts.

Insomniacs have heightened blood pressure which in turn is linked to long-term damage to the heart. While the blood pressure of good sleepers drops during the night, those poor long-suffering insomniacs have their blood pressure cranked up even higher.

There's nothing more debilitating than that moment when you wake and realise that you're more tired than when you went to sleep. Now the insomniac gets even more bad news.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The old, old story

Fascinating story in the Telegraph about the origin of fairy tales - based on research by Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University. Looking at different versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story, he found a recurring pattern of similar stories in different cultural settings which suggested that versions of the tale had been in circulation for at least 2,600 years.

Just as languages can be related back to a common ancestor, so too with the fairy tale.

What were our ancestors trying to pass on through such stories? There must have been warnings, or shared experiences, that were passed on through such archetypal tales. Like dreams, they occupy that territory between the collective consciousness and individual fears and memories.

One of the most common themes in fairy tales is sleeping, often an enchanted or magical sleep. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are the most famous examples - with the original folk stories much more brutal, and more suggestive, than the Disneyfied versions. Sleep in fairy tales is a mysterious state - suspended between life and death. Take it a step further, where fairy tales turn into myths, and in Greek mythology sleep, the healer, is the twin of death, both children of the night.

Sleep isn't only about the functional hours of rest, it has its own mystery and culture.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Autumn leaves

The nights are drawing in, autumn is hanging around the park gates, it's getting more tempting to stay in bed for a few more minutes in the morning. Even though the seasons change, the timetable of work and school stays the same.

It's even more of a shock to the system later in the year and then in the spring when the clocks start being switched backwards and forwards. I've never been convinced about the need for all that messing around with the time.

What happens to people's sleep when the hour is shifted?

A study in the United States has looked at what happens when the clocks are moved forward.

People don't readjust by going to bed earlier, instead they sleep less. Sleep deprived workers are more likely to make mistakes - and researchers found a marked increase in workplace accidents on the Monday following the change of clocks. These accidents caused lost days - and in a really striking statistic, the researchers found a 68% increase in lost work days following the clocks being changed.

Ignoring the need to sleep can cost more than a few tired hours.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Lying down on the job

It must be in the running for the best job. A 22-year-old student is being paid to test luxury beds, with the comfortable hours of 10am to 6pm.

According to an interview in the Telegraph, student Roisin Madigan will report on what makes a really good sleeping experience, while testing the beds of Simon Horn Ltd.

For anyone who thinks this seems rather indulgent, then I'd say why shouldn't we get as much pleasure as possible from sleep? Sleep is a very good thing, so why can't we allow ourselves to enjoy it. Sleep shouldn't be something hurried and neglected, it should be luxuriated in, savoured like a fine wine or a really pleasurable meal. We should recognise the different types of sleep and differentiate between what makes a good and a bad night.

And so to bed.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Meaning of sleep? What's the point of being awake?

Why do we sleep? It's such a basic question, but there's no agreed answer and debate continues to set out ideas.

An article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience suggests that rather than looking for a single universal evolutionary function for sleep, we should see the dozing animal as part of a wider sweep of nature which includes the dormant states of plants. These phases of resting and activity reflect nature's best efforts to make use of the resources available. So a creature which depends on hunting during the night will shape its sleep patterns to optimise its chances of success.

I've always thought that sleeping and waking are not opposites, but are integral to each other - and so looking for the purpose of sleep is the same as looking for the purpose of being awake. Sleep isn't a lesser state which needs to explain itself. We should consider the possibility that sleep is the default position, a state of dormancy being closer to nature than being awake. There are some simple creatures that spend almost all their lifetime in a state of rest, stirred into brief rushes of activity only when threatened or needing food. For them being awake is an occasional unpleasant aberration, while the majority of their life is the calm rhythm of inactivity.

In the living world, for plants as well as animals, the patterns of day and night, rising and falling, birth and death, winter and summer, are profoundly rooted - and in this pattern must also lie the idea of sleeping and waking, one not possible without the other.

But the search for an explanation for sleep shouldn't beguile us into thinking that being awake is the higher state of being. Being awake is what we prioritise because it's where our culture stores its prizes. It's where we work, promote our individualism, assert our power, it's where economic status resides. Sleep has none of this, it's a mysterious, curious place, nothing to do with money or social status. It operates on a level much closer to nature. It's where we're only a few unconscious breaths away from other living creatures.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Italian Marie Claire

The Sleepyhead book is now resting its head in the soft pillows of the Italian edition of Marie Claire. I'm not sure what I'm meant to be saying about the book in this interview, but it looks very fetching. How do they make stuff look so darned stylish? Here's the link to the article in the "Stare bene" section, which according to the Google-style translator means "Stay healthy".

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Before the head hits the pillow

Adults can only envy the way a child can fall so completely and deeply asleep. It's like an on-off switch, going from being awake into profound sleep. I remember long summer holiday days in my own childhood, a city kid helping out on my grandfather's farm, tired and sunny, falling asleep before my head hit the pillow.

But there are plenty of kids who don't find it easy to fall asleep. My own children get thrown out of their regular pattern during the holidays and stay up too late and get too tired.

So what might help them to fall asleep? Part of the answer, according to research in the cheerfully-titled Archives of Disease in Childhood, is to run around a lot during the day.

Researchers have calculated the relationship between how much exercise children have during the day and the rapidity of falling asleep.

Studying a group of children with an average age of seven, researchers found that for every hour of sedentary activity - whether it was watching television or reading a book - an extra three minutes was added to the time it took children to fall asleep. Increasing the amount of physical exercise during the day meant a corresponding reduction in the amount of time it took to fall asleep.

So the answer is to run around all day for an instant sleep at night.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Sunny Jim

Hats off to the former prime minister, Jim Callaghan. An article in the Daily Mail highlights concerns that the current incumbent, Gordon Brown, isn't getting enough shut-eye. The 24-hour culture of news seems to have pushed political life into a sleepless marathon. Not good for anyone. Better the example of Jim Callaghan who had the good sense to have a sleep each afternoon. According to a former assistant, his catchphrase for such occasions was: "Better well rested than well briefed." What wise words.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Train of thought

For anyone about to catch a train to work in the morning, here's a little rail trivia. I'd heard of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I'd never heard of a Railroad Hall of Fame. Maybe they're both for people who made great tracks.

But this Railroad Hall of Fame has a new member, in the form of George Pullman, who gave his name to comfortable train travel and phrases such as pullman lounges, pullman cases and pullman kitchens.

Pullman is credited with creating the first railway sleeper cars, which were known as "palace cars" because of their glamour and luxury. Passengers on the long journeys across the United States needed more comfort than a hard seat - and Pullman's sleepers from the 1860s held the promise of being hotels on wheels, with fine food and soft beds.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Food for thought

It can be tough to sleep in these hot summer nights. It's a restless, quilt-kicking time of year.

But if you find it hard to stay in bed, spare a thought for the story this week of the woman who sleep walks her way to the fridge each night. Without realising what was happening, each night this poor soul went to the fridge and scoffed huge quantities of food. It wasn't the salad bowl she was raiding either, but the chocolate and cheese compartment. Next thing she knows, she's nine stone heavier and has no idea how it happened. She has been sleepwalking on a munchie mission for all these years.

Monday, 25 May 2009

You've made your bed...

Interesting to see that in the bust-up over MPs' expenses, one member has been praised for her frugality, as she sometimes sleeps on a camp bed in her office. There's something rather penitential about the photograph of the MP sitting on a spartan fold-up bed.

The idea of plain and simple bedding for a higher purpose has very deep roots. There are spiritual retreats where people sleep on stone beds as a way of focusing their thoughts on higher matters and to shake off worldly pleasures. John Wesley was distrustful of beds that were too soft and pleasurable, wanting something starchier and more morally bracing. The camp bed, all function and no frills, modestly ready to be hidden away, is the perfect bed for such uncomfortable times.

Political leaders around the world, sensitive to this puritanical instinct, seem much happier to be seen to be exhausted and sleep deprived. They might be too tired to make any decent decisions, but at least it looks as though they're trying.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Not jet lag but fat lag

Long sleepers are slimmer say researchers - and missing out on sleep is linked to a greater risk of obesity.

This is the result of research into the relationship between weight and sleep patterns. It's good news for the serious sleepers, but it's more anxiety for the sleep starved, who now face the prospect of being overweight as well as exhausted.

I'll leave the complex science of all this to the complex scientists - but something mentioned in these reports struck me as very convincing. Loss of sleep leads to comfort eating.

Anyone who has ever worked a night shift or tried to finish off some work through the middle of the night will know the feeling. You're completely exhausted, you're up all night and you're not really hungry, but you suddenly want to eat the most unhealthy food you can find. It's a ridiculous feeling, light-headed with lack of sleep and then stuffing your head with junk food. It's that haywire moment in the middle of the night.

It's like the confusion of messing around with time zones. Except it's not jet lag, but fat lag.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Wherever I lay my... suitcase

In Canada there has been another of those stories where someone is found living in an airport. The woman had a suitcase, as if ready to travel, but had not caught a flight after a month in the terminal.

What's interesting is that the proof of her "living" in the airport was that was where she slept. Sleeping in a place, on a regular basis, is almost a definition of home. There is something significant about the place we choose to sleep. It confers a particular status. It becomes home. In our insecure, rootless society, where we're all driftwood, where relationships seem so fragile, the search for home becomes even more significant.

And one of the characteristics of the elusive sense of home is that this is the place we sleep, whether it's a suburb we inwardly distrust, the inner-city we want to leave or... an airport terminal.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Wool: The stuff of dreams

How much time do we spend in bed? Not enough, I know. But it's remarkable how little time we spend thinking about what we're sleeping in and what we're sleeping under.

So, by way of experiment, I'm testing a different type of duvet. I've been trying out a duvet filled with wool. Although wool has been a staple of keeping people warm for thousands of years, I'd never had a duvet with wool inside before.

At first glance, it looks flatter than the duvets I've usually used. And in terms of getting into bed, the warmth feels more intense. It is extremely cosy, there is a definite fleece-factor. I'm an enthusiastic sleeper and I like to be warm, so this was very much to my taste. It's big on comfort, in a wrap-around kind of way.

The Woolroom ( which sells these wool duvets, says that wool is better at helping the sleeper to maintain an even temperature. "It initially raises skin temperature so that you are warm, it insulates you from the cold but also stops you overheating while you sleep."

This ability of the wool to adapt to body temperature is claimed as making the sleeper less likely to feel "clammy". Such quilts are meant to be particularly good at absorbing moisture. Wool quilts also can boast a natural, eco-friendly status.

In the end, regardless of the science, the question the sleeper will want answered is: Was it a good sleep? And the answer is a positive one, it's seriously snug.

But it also occurs to me that we don't have much of a language for comparing sleeps. How do we describe the different sleeps below types of quilt or using types of pillows? How do we distinguish between the sleeps on different beds?

What does a sleep below a wool quilt feel like? If it was a wine, it would be a velvety red. The word that keeps coming back is "intense". I dreamt more, which could have been a coincidence, but it was that kind of rich, snug sleep.

How do you review sleep? For something we do so often, maybe we should be thinking about it more seriously.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Champion sleepers

The French are the champion sleepers of the industrialised world, according to figures from the OECD.

A study of lifestyles across developed countries shows how the amount of sleep varies sharply between cultures.

The French enjoy the most sleep, followed by the slumbering citizens of the United States. At the other end of the scale, the Koreans and Japanese sleep the least. The UK hovers somewhere in the middle, sleeping less than the Spanish or the Australians, but sleeping more than the Italians or the Germans.

Apart from feeling jealousy towards those relaxed French dreamers, it's also a lesson in how much sleep is driven by culture rather than nature. Given that we're all the same human species, it might be expected that sleep would be pretty constant between different countries.

After all, you'd expect cats in Korea and cats in Germany to sleep for the same average amount of time each day, regardless of the passports of their owners. But with humans, there are big national differences, with more than a hour a day in the gap between the French and the Koreans.

Over the course of a year, that means that the French are asleep for a full 15 days more than the Koreans. Think of that, missing out on a full 15 days of uninterrupted sleep.

It shows how much sleep, that glorious natural instinct, can be altered by the pressures of human society.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Bank Holiday: Top quality kipping

The Eskimos supposedly have lots of different words to distinguish between types of snow. I don't know if that's true, but it's the kind of thing people tell you, usually not people with a big grasp of Inuit languages admittedly. It makes me wonder why our own vocabulary hasn't adapted to our surroundings. What about words to discern between different types of being stuck in traffic? Or a range of descriptions for the different annoying gits in a railway carriage?

Anyway, this is getting round to wondering why there is such a limited range of words for the quality of sleep. "Did you sleep well?" "Yes." "What sort of sleep was it?" "It was just sleep." We lack words for the degrees of slumber, the quality of kip.

Today offers a particular type of sleep. It's a bank holiday, a Monday without the need to go to work or take the children to school. It's a magnificent chance of a lie-in. Big time sleeping. It means looking at the alarm clock and laughing into its bossy face. It's way past getting up time. It's really late. And I'm still lying in bed, half awake, half asleep. It's a good time for dreaming and making plans that feel a bit like dreams, which you forget when you get up. It's that feeling when you're drifting back and forth between sleeping and waking.

It might not have special name, but it's a very special sleep.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Sleep, the mood-altering drug

A study from Finland published this week proves what every parent will already have known from bitter experience. Children who don't get enough sleep can turn into bad-tempered monsters.

Researchers found that children who didn't get eight hours were more likely to become badly behaved and hyperactive. Rather than treating them as ADHD cases, it suggests they should just go to bed earlier.

"We were able to show that short sleep duration and sleeping difficulties are related to behavioural symptoms of ADHD," said Dr Juulia Paavonen.

In children, the impact of lack of sleep is immediately transparent. They get over-tired, unhappy and it ends in tears. A late night is paid for by bad moods the next morning. It really does make children miserable.

Seeing it in my own children always makes me think about what similar impacts sleep has on adult moods. We're better at disguising our feelings, we don't start screaming and howling when we're a bit tired. But it must still be changing our moods.

Children can be incredibly angry when they haven't had enough sleep. So how much of adult bad temper and irritability is attributable to lack of good quality sleep? Is road rage and those crazy angry outbursts you hear in supermarkets fuelled by people who need to get to bed earlier?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Why are so many hotels so uncomfortable?

There have been lots of recession-related suggestions that families are going to start returning to old fashioned seaside holidays, rather than travelling abroad.

I grew up by the seaside on the south coast and I've always had a soft spot for the big skies and the faded grandeur. I like the piers, the seafronts, the way it veers between seedy and scenic.

But any return to the seaside promenade needs a bit of a reality check. First of all, there needs to be a bit of back to basics on hotels. Too many really average hotels in this country are ridiculously over-priced, particularly for a family. What makes this even more annoying is how bad they are at the basic stuff.

The hotel experience, apart from the breakfast, is really a glorified bedroom. So getting a good night's sleep is pretty fundamental. So why are so many hotels so uncomfortable for sleep? Why do they have radiators which seem stuck on some pre-set temperature? Why are they so exhaustingly hot? Why do so many hotels hum like ship's engines all night?

Not that long ago, I stayed in a fancy-ish hotel where the heat was pumping out like a furnace. When I opened a window, I was deafened by some kind of extractor fan a few yards away.

Maybe you might fancy a drink to cool down? But the mini-bar has tiny bottles of industrial wine being sold at prices more suitable to vintage champagne. Bottled water is sold at insultingly inflated prices. This isn't hospitality, it's just ripping people off.

End of rant. But if you can't even get a decent kip, what are they selling?

Friday, 10 April 2009

Where there's a wool

More people are going back to sleeping under wool, says Bradford-based e-business, As well as blankets, this new fleece of life for wool bedding (sorry, couldn't resist that) is from wool-stuffed duvets.

There are claims that wool makes for a better night's sleep, providing a more natural regulation of temperature and encouraging a deeper and more refreshing rest.

I've always been sympathetic to wool, on a kind of Wallace and Gromit, comfort-blanket level. It's aesthetically pleasing, in terms of the patterns and colours of blankets, and there's a tactile, nights-by-the-fire quality. I've got a collection of Foxford wool blankets, even though in practice I sleep under a quilt stuffed with something made from ducks and plastic.

I suppose I like the idea of wool, with its associations with nature and nurture. People have slept beneath wool blankets and on top of wool-stuffed mattresses for thousands of years. It seems so natural. And like so much about sleep, it's all about expectation. The welcoming bed, the crisp sheets, the warm blankets... it's a state of mind as much as a state of sleep.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Beauty sleep

Sleeping beauty, beauty sleep... there has always been a sultry side to sleep, something sensuous. There's an undeniable physical pleasure in lying back and stretching and getting ready to sleep.

An enticing bed is a form of seduction. It has its own irresistible come hither look. So it's no surprise to see the Daily Mail carrying a picture of Lisa Snowdon wearing a small sheet and a big smile. It's promoting a Body Beautiful Bed which promises to make gorgeously rested sleepers.

It's not that much of a leap from news to folk stories, they all draw from the same well, they all appeal to the same ancient instincts of fear, greed, curiosity and dreams. A princess asleep in a skyscraper of beds is a fairytale, enchanted sleeps are a staple of classic myths, and women being made beautiful by the beds they sleep in... that's news.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

De-cluttering the brain

It's always reassuring when scientists use descriptions that actually sound like something I've experienced. So when researchers at the University of Wisconsin describe the lack of sleep as like "feeling that your brain is full of wool", they have my full attention. I have been that wool head.

Sleep creates the space needed for learning new information, they describe it as "spring cleaning" the brain so that there is a nice tidy place to put new things. Without sufficient sleep, the information received by the brain today is competing with the noise and clutter from yesterday. The brain, without sleep, is in no fit state to learn anything new.

The sleepless brain is the desk where you can't find anything. Sleep de-clutters the brain. Sleep makes the path for learning.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Sleeping rebels

Idealism still exists. It's just gone up in price a little. This week has seen a series of commemorative articles marking the 40th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "bed-in" peace protest. Out of all the ex-Beatle's political statements, it's odd how lying in bed in a hotel has remained such a stand-out, if not stand-up, memory. This ultimate form of passive resistance really seemed to get under people's skin.

Given the number of people who claimed to have been in the bedroom with the couple, they must have been accommodated in a room the size of Wembley Stadium. "We were just passing through in our VW camper and they said come on up."

But back to the idealism. Toronto's Queen Elizabeth hotel was one of the locations for the bed-in protest in 1969, where Lennon and his followers sang songs and grew hairy in the cause of peace and love. In honour of the occasion, you can stay in the same suite for $599 per night in the irresistibly unironic "Imagine package". You get to sleep in the room, plus breakfast in bed and a CD of Give Peace A Chance. Yes, just imagine.

They say that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce... and after that as a tourist attraction.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

'Natural thought of our souls'

There's a great review in the New York Times of an exhibition “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream,” which has opened at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

It reveals the complexities of the way that sleep was seen in the 17th century, not as something functional and rather trivial, but as an uncertain and thought-provoking state. "Sleep should not be thought of casually: it is mysterious, powerful, central, inextricably linked to the world."

This exhibition shows how seriously the men and women of the 17th century took their sleep - recognising that it needed to be attended to as much as their waking hours.

There is a marvellous quote from the 1630s, saying that the wise man "learnes to know himselfe as well by the night's blacke mantle, as the searching beames of day. In sleepe, wee have the naked and naturall thoughts of our soules".

You could sit back and think about that for a long time. While we attach so much status to what we achieve in our work and in our public lives, to what we show other people, it's under night's black mantle that we might see more of our own souls.

There are also some intriguing sleep remedies. There was the old stand-by of poppy, but also lettuce and dormouse blood. Both lettuce and dormice have been associated with sleep forever, they are remarkably persistent associations.

The exhibition runs until the end of May - and there is some information online at

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Rip van Sleep-Deprivation

It's a sad tale of our times. Rip van Winkle can't get to sleep. This Rip van Winkle is a 37-year-old resident of Corvallis, Oregon, and he is seeking help with his insomnia. The irony couldn't be plainer if it was painted in yard-high letters. The man who shares a name with the symbol of sleep can't get any himself. The owner of the Rip Van Winkle Residential Contract and Repair firm is sleep deprived.

It says something about our sleepless times when this is the case. Such problems never afflicted the Rip van Winkle invented by the writer Washington Irving. He had a drink and fell asleep and didn't wake for 20 years. By then, there had been a revolution, his wife had died and his daughter was grown up. We've all had mornings like that.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Sleeping through a recession

The recession has given newspapers more angles than a suitcase full of protractors. Not just the stuff about money and finance. I mean all the features and news features and lifestyle stories, pegged on the economic downturn. How to eat cheaply, what it's doing to our sex lives, how we're all going to have to go on holiday to a windswept caravan site in North Wales.

The recession is creating its own mini-boom in recession-related news stories.

Sleep is not escaping this recessionary obsession - although oddly enough, sleep is one of nature's greatest free gifts. Millionaires and paupers both have equal claims on its restorative balm. But according to a big survey in the United States, a whopping one third of people are claiming to be losing sleep over the recession.

Now, you can imagine President Obama losing a little shut eye about the recession. And there could be a few troubled nights for those suits who accidentally let the entire banking system slip down the back of the sofa. But it seems very unfair that so many other people are losing out on the joy of sleep because of the financial chaos.

The survey suggests that this is a case of people being too worried about their jobs and their financial security to sleep properly. This might be understandable. But the figures also show that one fifth of the population are only getting six hours sleep. No wonder people are always crying on US reality shows. They must be completely cream crackered.

Six hours every night is systematic sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep means bad judgements, stress, an inability to solve problems, irritability, aggression, it means behaving recklessly...

It's beginning to sound like there might be a connection to the banking crash. Maybe the guys who were running the finance houses that fell apart were only getting six hours a night. No wonder they made bad calls. Now everyone else is losing sleep over it. Perhaps we've stumbled onto something here...

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Lessons in sleep

The Australians are teaching teenagers about sleep. It seems a little counter-intuitive, along the lines of taking coals to Newcastle, but the more you think about it, the more sensible it seems.

For something that is so important, it's remarkable how little we really know about sleep. Even on the most basic question - what is sleep for? - the general consensus is that there is no general consensus and no on really knows. On a more day to day level, sleep occupies a great chunk of our lives, but it's something that we don't really learn anything about.

There are all kinds of lessons in schools about sex education and healthy eating and keeping fit... but what about sleep? It might sound vaguely subversive to promote the cause of sleep. But then look around at the yawning ranks of teenagers who have missed out on sleep and what is more important? If you haven't slept properly, there's less chance of learning properly.

A project in schools in South Australia gave teenagers some basic advice about sleeping - how many hours they needed, suggestions for getting into a regular pattern of healthy sleep and avoiding drinks before bedtime such as coffee which might disrupt sleep. According to the research, this helped teenagers to establish a better sleep routine.

It might also help them to avoid that great scourge of teenage life - "weekend jetlag". This is where they stay up so late at the weekend, blurring morning and night, that going back to school on Monday is like crashing back into a different time zone. Sympathy? No chance.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Have you seen a racoon mum?

Here's a label I haven't heard before: "Racoon mum". Or more precisely, "racoon mom", because the example I saw was from Canada. I suppose if we actually were racoons - the variety that sit up and read stuff on computers - then we would already know all about racoon mums/moms and there would be nothing further to add.

But for any non-racoon readers, the phrase "racoon mum" describes a particular pattern of sleep deprivation. It is the way that already sleep-starved mothers of young children become even more exhausted by staying up all night messing round on Facebook, playing Tetris, Googling their old school friends or watching re-runs of Friends at three in the morning on UK Bedsit. In general, staying up half the night doing nothing in particular.

The reference to the racoon is because this behaviour is both nocturnal and rather secretive, hanging around alone in the lamplight of the small hours, black-ringed eyes bulging with tiredness.

The theory is that the racoon mum spends all day either at work or at the beck and call of their children. Any parent will know that children can be tough and unrelenting task masters and after a full day and evening of them-time, the racoon mum still wants some me-time. Going to bed early will mean a day without any adult time.

So the racoon mum gets the white wine and the computer or television and spends some quality time alone.

Except it gets late very quickly and going to bed so late means exhaustion the next morning. Lack of sleep makes the following day even tougher and when you're sleepless, everything is twice as stressful. So the racoon mum is in even greater need of a restorative fix of spare time.

I suspect there are plenty of racoon dads out their too. We manage to make our days so overcrowded that there isn't any room for ourselves in our own lives.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Sleeping with the insects

The male sleeps longer than the female, is more likely to sleep during the day and the female is more likely to have her sleep disrupted. Sounds familiar? This is research into fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) rather than the adult human male (couchus potatus), but it casts a light onto our own propensity to kip.

For a start, sleeping behaviour is hard wired into living creatures. It's written through us like a stick of rock. The humble fruit fly, the hapless butt of so many experiments, has 1,700 genes associated with sleep patterns. These might affect when and for how long an individual fruit fly might snooze. Mess around with these genes and sleep patterns are altered.

What should we make of this? Does the long sleeper have a genetic drive for such inclinations, in the way they might have their own thumbprint or eye colour? Is there some ancestral sleeper who has passed on these habits? Why should the comfortable kipper be turned out of bed when their genes are telling them they need just five more minutes?

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Driven crazy by lack of sleep

Sleep must be one of the most powerful mood-altering drugs on the planet. Refreshed and rested the world can seem a manageable place. Exhausted and sleepless, it can seem an impossible and overwhelming challenge. Every task can seem like towing a caravan uphill, against the wind, in a car that's breaking down. Too much of too much.

A really interesting piece of research from Harvard University has been reported this week raising the idea that lack of sleep might be linked to mental health problems. Rather than saying that people with mental health problems might be more likely to suffer from poor sleep, it looks down the other end of the telescope and suggests that people who are wrecked by bad sleep could start to develop mental health problems as a consequence. As the Daily Telegraph describes it: "Having trouble sleeping can literally drive you mad."

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Kicking off the blankets

There's an article in the Telegraph about premier league football clubs hiring "sleep coaches" that has all kinds of sleep nuggets. In the first place, it's quite interesting that top clubs have such coaches and a recognition of how important sleep is to well-being and recovery. But even more of an eye-brow might be raised to learn that some players use musical pillows to improve their sleep. There is advice on mattresses (they should be completely white) and the insight that players sometimes sleep between training sessions. Also, there are players who have 12 hours sleep per day.

What a spectacularly good life that must be. Absurdly high wages, a playboy lifestyle and as much as sleep as you can manage.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Sleep is nature's cold cure

Here's how things work in reverse. Research from Carnegie Mellon University, published last week, shows that sleeping less than seven hours a night trebles the risk of catching a cold. Lack of sleep means that the immune system is weakened. So all of us worker ants buying those sticky bottles of cold cures might be better off sleeping longer and that way we might avoid catching the cold in the first place.

But when did common sense ever get its way? Instead, we work long hours and go home late, we get distracted by TV or the internet and stay up too late, but still have to get up early the next morning. So we reduce the hours of sleeping. By missing out on sleep, we raise the risk of getting a cold. Once we catch the cold, we have to take time off work to get better.

So by working long hours and losing out on sleep, we end up being less productive. Getting eight or more hours sleep isn't being a slacker, it's a way of making our working lives more effective. Having a lie-in could be a way of cutting the number of sick days. Sleep might be nature's cold remedy.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

How about sleep gyms?

The odd thing is that every week there are loads of stories saying how much we need sleep, with the implication being that we don't get enough. Except sleep doesn't cost anything. It's not as if you need a lot of space or equipment for sleeping. So why do we starve ourselves of sleep?

I would like to turn the tide. Rather than having gyms for running around to improve our health, there should be places to go for a half-hour kip. Rather than lots of sweating middle managers on treadmills, looking glazed and martyred, there could be comfortable, softly-lit sleep gyms, where people could get under the blanket for a decent stretch. Which would make you happier and healthier?

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Sleepyhead's Bedside Companion

It's a cold, wet winter morning. The alarm clock rings and I have to look twice at its angry little face to make sure that it's really that time already. I know what I want to do. It isn't get up for work, it isn't make the children their breakfast, it isn't listening to some bores shouting and showing off on the radio. What I want is sleep. It's what I love. It's what I miss most when I don't get it.

Sleep. Is there anything better? It's good for you, it's mysterious, it doesn't cost anything.

This blog is dedicated to the cause of sleep. It's not worth getting into bed for anything less.