Eluned Summers-Bremner is an English professor and cultural historian at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her latest book is Insomnia: A Cultural History (Reaktion Books).
Lianne George interviewed her for Maclean's. Part of the Q & A:
Q: Do you believe insomnia is becoming more widespread?Read the full interview.
A: I do. Partly because our working cycles have become globalized. I'm often working to U.K. deadlines and in Auckland, where I live, we're 12 hours ahead. Also, one didn't used to get emails from students at 3 a.m., but now we all do. People just work according to deadlines and often they don't take into account your time zone. It's just part of the reign of the market in people's lives.
Q: How else does the modern workplace feed insomnia?
A: There's a Swedish study that talks about people getting "head tired." It's where people get so tired with thinking but they can't shut it off, and because their body's not tired, it's harder for them to sleep. I suppose the more work we do with our heads, just sitting still, and the more work we do on networks and computers, the less physically tired we get and the more head tired we get.
Q: What does looking at the history of insomnia tell us about modern troubles with it?
A: Mainly that insomnia wasn't always a bad thing. And that it wasn't always as simple as we perhaps think it was. Because we do tend to think, "I can't sleep! I won't be any good for work in the morning!" We see it as something that needs fixing. Looking at the past is quite helpful in a way because it helps us to see that we've come to fear insomnia. Partly it's the way it's marketed — it's a bit like we're meant to fear depression and take anti-depressants. But I think if you look at the past, you see insomnia had all sorts of effects, some of them quite positive, and some of them were actually sought out.
Learn more about Insomnia: A Cultural History.