Don's diary: sleepless on sabbatical

January 23, 2004

Wake at 7.30am. Terrible night. Feel awful. For someone who's writing a book about sleep, I should be doing better. Is it simply a case of poor sleep habits, or, more sinister, an underlying sleep disorder? It's my third week on sabbatical, and progress is painstakingly slow, helped in no small part by the spillover from last term. Rogue essays are still appearing in my pigeonhole, references have to be written, a quality assurance assessment looms large, and PhD supervision continues. I must redraw the lines and revise my timetable.

On a brighter note, journalists have stopped calling for a line on sleep deprivation: Channel 4's Shattered has a lot to answer for. The winner of this dubious spectacle bagged £97,000 for 178 hours of sleep deprivation. Whatever will they think of next? It is all good grist to the sociological mill, though. Monday fizzles to an uneventful close.

Bed at 11.30pm.

Up at 6.30am, another poor night. The meeting about our pilot work on sleep goes well. Sociologists seem to have missed this vital third of our lives. Our research aims to fill this gap. Some people still think I'm joking when I say I'm interested in sleep. "Any excuse," they say.

The afternoon is spent writing a proposal for an interdisciplinary seminar series on sleep and society. Does "dormant agendas" sound right? A good day, I can rest easy tonight. Bed at 11.00pm.

Straight off to sleep.

Up at 7.30am. Time to return to the sleep deprivation debate.

Are we all chronically sleep deprived? A brief chat with the postman provides a new lead. "So you're researching sleep are you?" he says. "The missus says I drive her mad with me snoring." "That can be serious," I reply, affecting a quasi-expert tone. The weight of evidence certainly suggests we are short of shut-eye, but individual sleep needs vary, as the notorious Mrs Thatcher proved, and the standard eight-hour prescription rests more on fiction than fact. It's a bit like overeating, some say: we all have the capacity to sleep well beyond our sleep need, whatever that may be. Unsure, I resolve to test myself on the Epworth sleepiness scale. I am apparently suffering from excessive daytime sleepiness. Convinced of the link between sleep and performance, I decide to hit the sack a little earlier tonight. Bed at 10.30pm.

Awake at 7.30am suitably refreshed. Today I am revisiting the historical and cross-cultural literature on sleep. My monophasic (once a day) sleep pattern is certainly far from universal. Am I missing out on something? Biphasic and polyphasic sleep cultures, including Spanish-speaking siesta cultures, seem eminently preferable. China, likewise, has always been a midday napping culture, despite attempts to eliminate it, while inemuri - where a brief snooze in the company of others is tolerated, if not endorsed - is common in Japan. I resolve to take up the ancient art of napping. Bed at 11.00pm.

Awake at 7.30am. Another good night's sleep. I plough through coverage of sleep in the news, including coverage of Shattered . Things are looking up. Not only am I on course for a well-slept sabbatical, but the case for a sociology of sleep - or do I mean a sleep-inducing sociology, the perfect bedtime reading for chronic insomniacs? - is growing by the day. Something to sleep on perhaps? Time for bed (said Zebedee).

Simon Williams is reader in sociology at the University of Warwick.

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