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Personal Blog

Studying sleep is big business

Wild Nights

I recently had the privilege of introducing Benjamin Reiss at the 2017 Decatur Book Festival. Here's what I said.


Studying sleep is big business. Perhaps you're one of the more than 3 million people in the United States who had a diagnostic sleep study last year.


I had one several years ago. A technician glues electrodes to your scalp-- it's quite cumbersome. And you spend the night in a lab, with all this stuff attached to your head. Now there are apps on your phone, and you can record and analyze yourself. You can even get your own portable EEG monitor.


Researchers at Emory, where I work, are harvesting data from heart rate monitors. They want to see whether they can reliably tell the difference between someone with PTSD or schizophrenia from healthy controls. It turns out that the time of day that is the most revealing, for heart rate variability, is the middle of the night.


Eventually they want to use this technology to monitor whether patients are doing better with treatment, without having them come into the doctor's office. They like to call this "objective" because it doesn't involve a conversation or having them fill out a questionnaire, just looking at their heart beats and activity logs.


This sounds intriguing, and it's an illustration of the flourishing state of sleep research. Still, doctors and big data researchers who think they are objectively measuring and studying sleep, or those people who are downloading sleep analysis apps, could do with a dose of cultural and historical perspective. That's what we can get from Benjamin Reiss.


There's a consensus that electricity and later computers altered the way in which we sleep in Western countries – Reiss' book in turn illuminates how to think about that change, reexamining work by authors such as Henry David Thoreau.


Reiss is currently chair of English department at Emory and also co-director of the Disability Studies Initiative. He plays violin and used to play pickup basketball. He previously taught at Tulane in New Orleans, and his family evacuated at the time of Hurricane Katrina. The experience made him think in a different way about our society's expectations about sleep.


Reiss got started with his interest in sleep when he was researching one of his previous books, about asylums and their role as cultural centers in the 19th century. He ran across the story of Jane Rider, a 19 year old servant for a well off family in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1833, Ms Rider began to experience migraine-like symptoms and then sleepwalking.


During her night time excursions, Rider performed tasks such as sorting clothes, sewing and cooking, with her eyes closed. She became a local attraction because of her supposedly clairvoyant abilities. Rider was eventually committed against her wishes to the State Lunatic Asylum. [That is what it was called then.] Reiss goes into greater detail about Rider in Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World.



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