The science of sleep: an unscientific investigation

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When I could not sleep as a child, I would press my head into the pillow, count sheep, and, if that failed, crawl into my parents’ bed. As a grown man, the solutions for insomnia are not so simple, and recently I have started sleeping in an electronic headband that uses “bone conduction speakers” to play sounds through my forehead and directly into my inner eardrum. The Dreem headband is equipped with various sensors to monitor my brain activity and plays special noises at precise moments to improve the quality of deep sleep. It also includes programs to help you to fall asleep, including a “cognition” program that plays random words to distract a ruminating brain. And so some nights I lie down listening while a soothing female voice whispers (through my forehead) into my (inner) ear: tourism, bathing, sunset, dress.

The headband is just one of several sleep aids that have made their way onto my nightstand. I have recently been exploring the booming market in “sleep aids,” the growing number of consumer products to improve our sleep. Good sleep is essential to healthy functioning, but it is increasingly hard to come by in our age of push alerts and LED screens: more than a third of American adults do not get enough sleep. No wonder, then, that people are willing to shell out to improve their rest. The global market for sleep aids hit $69.5 billion in 2017, and many companies, from startups like Dreem to heavyweights like Philips, are pumping out sleep pro ducts. They draw on the research of prestigious medical schools, like Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, that have set up divisions of sleep medicine.

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Some evenings I zonk out in Under Armour’s “Athlete Recovery Sleepwear,” which supposedly boosts blood flow to sore muscles by returning outgoing infrared energy to the body. I cannot really tell if my body recovers faster from exercise after sleeping in the pajamas, but I like the way they feel on my skin—smooth like silk, but strangely heavy too, as though they have been soaked in water. I travel with the Rohm portable sound machine by Marpac, which plays white noise to help me sleep through the night in noisy new places. And occasionally, I burn a “tranquility scented candle” from Neom, “a complex blend of 19 of the purest possible essential oils,” selected for their sleep-friendly olfactory properties. Most aromatherapy candles don’t tout scientific research on their labels, but studies have backed their value as sleep aids. One study, for instance, of 31 subjects found that the scent of lavender “increased the percentage of deep or slow-wave sleep,” and that “all subjects reported higher vigor the morning after lavender exposure.” But some poor sleepers may need more than the smell of flowers—which is how I ended up” “with the Dreem headband.

Some nights I lie down listening while a soothing female voice whispers (through my forehead) into my (inner) ear: tourism, bathing, sunset, dress.

Deep sleep follows REM sleep and is especially important to memory consolidation and cognitive performance, and the Dreem headband aims to enhance it with audio stimulations to strengthen the brain’s “slow oscillations.” This is supposed to result in better sleep—but I often found myself waking up in the middle of the night and wanting to remove the headband, simply so that my head could rest flush against the pillow.

There was a time when a sleep-challenged person like me might unthinkingly pop an Ambien. But in recent years, there’s been mounting scientific evidence that pharmaceutical sleep aids are addictive and connected to memory loss and depression. Melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone produced by the pineal gland, available in a variety of over-the-counter supplements, is a safer option. A 2018 study in the United States showed that melatonin works by suppressing neurons in the brain that keep you awake and alert. Many people swear by it, especially for jet lag. Personally, I can’t say I noticed a difference.

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In my experience, one old-fashioned sleep aid rises above the others: a good hotel room. I was reminded of this when I recently checked into the Terrace Suite on the top floor of The Soho Hotel in London, one of 10 properties owned by Firmdale Hotels, a brand known for its thoughtfulness about sleep. Designed by Kit Kemp, an award-winning interior designer as well as the co-owner of Firmdale, the suite’s cozy, handcrafted feel stood in contrast to the anesthetized sleekness of more generic hotel rooms. The bed’s headboard rose almost to the ceiling: I jumped in like a child into a ball pit. First, I stretched horizontally across the super king mattress, my toes not even dangling off the edge; then I spun myself rightward and climbed beneath the sheets. The underside of the comforter was lined with silk. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrapped around the suite and gazed over the rooftops of nearby buildings. In my bed, I felt part of the city but isolated and safe from it also.

Most of us want the same thing at night—eight hours of uninterrupted and deep sleep—but the ways we pursue it are as myriad as our dreams.

This balancing act, of making a guest feel both in the city and away from it, is a challenge that any urban boutique hotel faces. Hotels are, after all, increasingly part of the lives of cities—places where visitors and locals come to eat, work, party, and relax. But they remain, at their core, places where people want a good night’s rest.  

 
“Quite simply, we sell sleep,” says Anna Jackson, the operations director for Firmdale Hotels. The guest’s ability to get a good night’s rest, she says, is “the most important element when we are planning a hotel.” This task is made especially tall by what researchers call the “first-night effect,” where one half of the brain stays more alert than the other half when a subject is sleeping in a new environment. This often results in a night of fitful sleep and makes guests extra-sensitive to noise and other disturbances—which can be a problem, especially for urban hotels.

The Soho Hotel, for instance, is located in one of London’s busiest and most vibrant neighborhoods, an area packed with restaurants, cafés, bars, shops, and theaters. “Building hotels in Soho was always a risk due to the ambient noise levels through until the early hours of the morning,” says Jackson. The Soho Hotel’s windows are triple-glazed to muffle street noise. (Jackson calls glazing “the most important element to start with.”) All the doors have a soft-closing mechanism to dampen sound, even the doors on the pantries. The rooms in The Soho Hotel, and every other Firmdale property, offer several bedtime luxuries that any sleep-challenged guest can appreciate, from custom mattresses with several layers of natural fibers, to customized pillows, bed linens, duvets, and even a bottle of Rik Rak pillow spray so that they can fall asleep to the scent of lavender and eucalyptus.

So, has all of my research, and the products that incorporate it, improved my sleep? I’m not always sure, which is a reminder that sleep is an art as much as a science. Most of us want the same thing at night—eight hours of uninterrupted and deep sleep—but the ways we pursue it are as myriad as our dreams. Some people’s bedtime ritual is like a séance, with the lighting of exotic candles and the brewing of strange teas. For others, going to bed is more like an athletic event, with stretching, bathing, and breathing exercises. 

Like any art form, sleep has its savants: I know a guy who can fall asleep standing on a crowded New York subway train and wake up 15 minutes later feeling totally refreshed. Perhaps the truest sleep artists, though, are those who use no products and simply consider sleep as that thing they do after sex. As for me, I will continue to take sleep one night at a time, trying new aids, techniques, and rituals until one day, hopefully, I learn what works for me. And when all else fails, I’ll book a hotel room.

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The preceding article is excerpted from the 2019 edition of Directions, an annual magazine by Design Hotels that looks at movements underway in art, design, food, wellness and fashion, and how they affect the way we live and travel. This year’s issue explores the New Sanctuaries, spaces both physical and figurative, natural and designed, where we find renewal, shelter, communion, and expressions of the sublime. Buy it here!

 

 

 

 

blog-thescienceofsleep-05Ben Crair is a writer living in Berlin who has written for The New York Times and National Geographic.

 

Daehyun Kim, a.k.a. Moonassi, is a visual artist based in Seoul. Stay tuned for more about his work, including an exclusive look into his studio, next week on the Culture Blog.

 

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019