I have two books in my personal library that are begging to be read. They have been perused though. Taken off the shelf, taken stock of, and then put back on the shelf. One because of regular I’ll-get-to-you-later book overloadness and the other due to a healthy amount of anxiety. Regardless, I feel like I’ve learned something just by knowing they are there.
These two books are Disenchanted Night by Wolfgang Schivelbusch and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. The former tells us a story of our modern age: from the light produced by various forms of fire to one of electricity. One can only imagine what brighter, cheaper, and more controllable lights have done to our human world. The latter tells of the danger of not having good sleep, even going so far as being quite deadly to one’s health. One tells the story of the wonders that light has produced. The other tells the story of the effects of those wondrous lights, the world where work can be done at the light of one non-light: the computer screen.
In the past couple years, there has been a lot of online articling and online Googling about the suppression of melatonin. My first reaction, and I know I wasn’t alone, was that this was plain balderdash. How could something as simple as a phone’s light in a dark room cause sleep issues? People have been sleeping with TVs in their beds for a while now, and there has been no epidemic of tired and groggy people.
By then, phone usage was my before and after sleep ritual. Sure, I could see that checking social media and news sites could affect my relaxation before sleep, but I also felt I could relax myself pretty good while reading an interesting article.
Cut to the present, where there is an boom in blue-blocker sunglasses, not for ironic 70s-80s wear, but used for evening work and sometimes day work (if you don’t like the fluorescent lights of your workplace). We have software that changes the light spectrum on our devices so that we are looking at more reds than blues in the mornings and evenings. And if you do some of the laziest searching you’ve ever done in your life, you will find a blue-light-reducing market out there. There is even a handy-dandy meter, created by a software company, that seems well-designed enough to quell your own is-this-legit meter.
Describing this all sounds like New Age-ism, a second coming rejuvenated by the internet. It’s akin to reading accounts about why coffee or chocolate or wine is really good for you or really bad for you. You want to just say, “Stop, it’s probably just okay in moderation.” But you don’t, and that’s the thing.
I have heard Matthew Walker on podcasts and have read articles about his research, and he makes a very compelling and seemingly true case that our relationship with sleep is too lax. We are killing ourselves by trying to make a living and negotiating that making of a living with our first priority, life itself. Great, we think. Another thing that we’ve been messing up all this time. And, also, another thing to pile onto our work stress. So, at night, we put our phones in a room that is not our bedroom because smartphones are apparently melatonin hijackers and—also, as if the former were not bad enough—now addicting our unboredom-like lives to a frenetic mindset.
Basically, it makes sense that we have evolved to use light as an indicator for rest and awareness. Our brains are too awesomely powerful to not have sufficient rest and recuperation. The sun, I’m assuming, was our first alarm clock, or at least our most universal alarm clock. And it was the very present backdrop to all our activities, work included. For most of human existence, it was not get back at this-o’clock, but get back when the sun reaches this-ness.
One of my questions is a rather weird one, and sidebarish: if sleep is so important, why do we schedule doctors and nurses on such crazy long bends of work? Is this dangerous? Do we need a mind-blowing report on this? Or are they just hurting themselves with their sleep schedule? Pan out and think about other stakeholders of the culture of long hours: most top-level jobs. Our culture, and many others, values extreme dedication to the workplace, and those who show it, move up. So, people at the top levels of things, important things, may be sacrificing a lot more than themselves, maybe.
But we are all susceptible to the deprivation. And you don’t have to have a long-houred job to be sleep deprived. For that, you just need to think about car accidents and sleep. There is sleep deprivation everywhere.
Will Walker’s findings and the future data to come change such a rooted work/life culture? Eh. An easy fix is just to value sleep more. Dedicate some time. And yet, that isn’t enough for us.
When I first got Walker’s book, I flipped to the index to find any mention of blue light and melatonin. I found only a few pages dedicated to our devices and sleep, and these pages follow a short section basically saying that our natural living room and bedside lights are already messing with our sleep (267-268). Verdict: devices are worse for you than regular light. But he curiously cites a study that I remembered reading in that multi-tabbed mode of research we all know now as internet surfing. Also, curiously, when I flipped back to the book to find the study that rang so familiar with me, I realized the book does not have studies cited in it. But a quick internet search found this recent article. And this, which refers to the article that Walker cites in his book. Both say that iPads, even under the Apple’s new-ish Night Shift setting, decrease melatonin production. But, there is a huge caveat: both studies had the brightness on the iPads all the way up. If you are scientist, you may think this was a fine move as you want to be sure that you capture an effect. But to us, the takeaway is to reduce the brightness and, if you want to get further technical, reduce the white balance in your accessibility settings. Thus, possibly, we can use our devices in our bedrooms with only the worry of the devices themselves drawing us in or causing us needless before bed anxiety.
Our natural anxieties do live very well with the new age of internet data turnover. It’s not surprising, since the precedent for the value of the computer has been emboldened by all these awesome discoveries. We are rooting out dark matter and finding the most elusive of black holes. We are deep into genetic code, even learning how to change it. We are on the verge of robot car driving, powered by the most intricate world-sensing equipment and smart-as-all-get-out algorithms.
And then there are the coffee/chocolate/wine articles, driven by that total hunger to examine the life of a human so as to lead a good one. And there probably is a corollary to leading a good political life too. We are all Montaignes now. We want the best for our babies; the best for our bodies; the best for our Tuesday night tastebuds; the best for our routes to places unknown; the best for our buck. We have turned into researchers, which may not be that surprising considering our information-seeking genetics.
We are cautious people, and we do things based on our experts. We brush our teeth two times a day. We floss. We go on diets from time to time. And now we have more “experts.” And we incorporate those findings into our lives too. And we perhaps tell others, online or offline. And then there is a point where the solution can cause more anxiety than the keep-on-keeping-on. Sometimes, when I’m taking all of these precautions to have a healthy pre-ubiquitus-screen life—limited screen time to two hours before bed, phone away from arm-reach of bed, deleted social media apps for temptation quelling, the kvetching about the screen-addicted youth, spending the extra money for those 400 lumen LEDs—I wonder if I’m just being a dupe.
What is this post-internet human being we’ve become? Where we can go to a doctor, receive professional advice and dismiss it because of our own internet prowess, our familiarity with another “expert”? (Not saying that second opinions are bad here.) Is our faux-authority making us adhere to a bunch of stuff that doesn’t really matter?
I sit and envision the possible future here. Does society act, making way for our sleeping health? Or do we all just shrug our shoulders at the final results and move our phones to our bedside tables? Or is this melatonin thing going to get upped to trinity status: coffee, chocolate, and wine? Or, we will get anxiety-induced specific?
My most interesting thoughts go in the direction of the exuberant technological capitalists creating a new sector of products: individual environments. Our smartphones already automatically cater our data around our GPS location. Our homes are now “sentient” enough to know we are walking through the door based on our smartphone’s pocket presence. We all have different work times, and I don’t think we are going to change our around-the-clock work schedules due to any scientific findings. So, possibly, the following conversation may happen:
“Meet me at dinner at 6 p.m.”
“What’s your rhythm at 6?”
“Oh, I’ll be set to dusk.”
“We are going to have to compromise. I have to work late. I’ll be day set to midday.”
“Alright, can we set for 4 p.m. light. Is that okay?”
“Yeah. And let’s go to that new Indian place.”
“That one doesn’t have good reviews.”
“Which site are you on for that?”
“The best one, of course.”
“We’ll see about that.”