Researchers Take Insomnia Seriously

Sleep is not what it used to be. Or so it seemed the other day in London at Sleep Talk, “the UK’s first public symposium on sleeplessness.” The two-day event featured experts discussing sleep laboratories, pharmaceuticals that override the need for rest, and the U.S. presidential campaign, which for many seems like a long, sleepless night.

The conference was hosted by the Wellcome Collection, an eccentric medical museum with deep pockets (It’s run by the Wellcome Trust, the world’s second richest medical charity, founded by pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome). Like the museum which displays a wide range of items — amputation saws, da Vinci drawings, a robot from the Human Genome Project, Napoleon’s toothbrush, and recordings of a journalist who was deprived of sleep by the Stasi – the symposium cast a wide net. It opened with a nighttime concert, featuring sleep-themed chamber music such as “Pur nel sonno,” an 18th-century cantata written by Domenico Scarlatti to gently wake Philip V, the insomniac king of Spain.

The next day 129 paying guests packed into a small theater below the museum to hear the latest snooze theory. Speakers included an English professor (“Insomnia is a double absence. It’s the absence of absence”), a historian of science (“I’m not sure our concern about insomnia is really a concern about insomnia”), and hard-core scientists (“At the base of the retina there are ganglia cells which project into the brain and set the body clock to local time”).

Despite his droopy eyes, Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford, had the manner of a well-rested man. Throughout his talk on “Sleep, Creativity, and the Healthy Mind,” he moved enthusiastically about the stage and joked about a Daily Mirror article which proclaimed that 10:00 a.m. was the best time for a bikini wax. (Apparently, humans are least receptive to pain in the morning).

A balding, round-faced man with a bright smile, Foster explained the “master pacemaker,” the cellular basis for our circadian rhythms. People who stay awake after 4:00 a.m., he noted, perform cognitive tasks worse than drunks at midday, but after 6:00 a.m., despite their exhaustion, they get a lot sharper. “This is not simply a product of fatigue.” he said, clicking through PowerPoint graphs. “It is an internally generated clock.”

We all get less sleep these days, Foster said, maybe an hour less than we did just forty years ago. Night shift workers, who do not adjust their internal clocks to their upside-down schedule, suffer the worst, getting only five and a half hours each day. “If you did that to a political prisoner, you’d be hauled into the Hague,” Foster said. “This would be considered some sort of torture.”

After lunch the conference-goers’ spirits lagged in predictable fashion. By 3:30 as Eluned Summers-Bremer, author of “Insomnia: A Cultural History,” described the Japanese adoption of the Western clock, several audience members nodded off. Luckily, a coffee break ensued, which brought to mind Hillary Clinton’s recent comments, “Some days, you know, there is not enough caffeine in the world to keep you going.” (Foster had explained, “caffeine and nicotine are very effective in raising one’s cognitive performance, very effective”).

During the break some considered the books for sale near the coffee urns, including “Sleep Disorders for Dummies,” “Sleep Management in Nursing Practice: An Evidence-Based Guide,” and “The Brain: A Very Short Introduction.” Others discussed their reasons for attending. An English graduate student working on Keats’s dreamy poems said, “In our culture we really tend to privilege the rational life and rational thought, and this makes us profoundly unbalanced.” Behind her a middle-aged woman said, “You see, I don’t dream, so I’m very interested in that.”

The day wrapped up with drinks. (Alcohol is not very effective in raising one’s cognitive performance). A group gathered around Foster. A gray-haired nurse brought him a clipping from the Daily Mail with the headline, “How 40 Winks Can Improve the Memory a Hundred Fold.”

“The data on this now looks pretty good,” Foster said. “A catnap in the afternoon of less than 20 minutes can do wonders, but it must be less than 20 minutes.”

Conversation turned to politics. Margaret Thatcher, like Bill Clinton, claimed to need only a few hours sleep. Foster said she was a bit of an exaggerator. “I spoke to one of her assistants,” he said. “She used to nap quite extensively during the day.” He could not account for Clinton’s nocturnal activities.

As for the endless travel schedule and repetitive speechifying of presidential candidates, Foster was miffed. “Surely it would be far better to say, we want to see the best of our politicians, not just lots of them,” he said. “Our ability to come up with creative solutions to complex problems is massively impaired by lack of sleep so if you’re thinking on you’re feet, you’re going to be impaired.”

“Maybe the decline in debates,” he added, “is the result of the candidates being sleep deprived.”

Foster even sympathized with Mike Huckabee, who recently compared his beleaguered campaign to a form of torture. “I’m finding out how long I can go sleep deprived,” Huckabee told CNN, “Running for office is sort of like being water-boarded.”

“Indeed,” said Foster, “What we expect our politicians to go through, it’s just madness.”

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