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.