Look at sleeplessness

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 4.56.52 PM
Source: BBC

Did you hear Woman’s Hour (BBC Radio 4) last week, the one about Kim Cattrall’s years long struggle with insomnia – “like a three-tonne gorilla sitting on my chest”?

This was not the standard celebrity promoting something interview. In a novel approach  the programme was dedicated to the reading of Kim’s private night-time diaries (by Dame Janet Suzman). The result was a quite brilliant encapsulation of the frustrating tussles of a bad sleep. The mind games the early hours play are described, in such good detail, you begin to think Kim had been in your bed,

“I didn’t go to university and I didn’t have children, I have no husband… I’m guilt-ridden and I’m alone… I’m agitated about getting friggin’ older… I will be found out that I am a sham, I’m too strident … I’ve gotten to where I am because I’m f**kable… I’m frightened I will not be accepted or liked by others as a strong woman… I’m not talented enough, I just got lucky.”

Kim’s sleeplessness was serious enough for her to pull out of a London play and engage in CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). She then found herself coming to terms with her own mortality.  Well worth a listen.

Sleeplessness is not a new cultural musing. Nor is it a modern day affection. But those who study it say it’s getting more common (we are sleeping 20% less than 100 years ago), is more likely to affect women and older people, has strong links to obesity, diabetes, depression and can run in families (source).  And this is not just in the Western world – other studies show there’s a global pattern.

Annoying, wretched even, as insomnia may be,  it has given us an extraordinary and enduring cultural legacy.  Across the centuries and across all cultures; from Rimbaud and Sappho to Shakespeare and Shelley to Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Inuit, Vietnamese,  Tamil, Yiddish, and Romanian poetry. (See this lovely anthology, Aquainted with the Night, insomnia poems.)

And many other creatives have pictured their experiences too.


Radio 3, The Essay: The Darkest Hour -15 minute ruminations from a selection of well-known men and women. Margaret Drabble, Juliet Stevenson, Michael Symmons Roberts, AL Kennedy and John Sutherland on what insomnia means to them. Interestingly childhood night-times are a strong feature of these reminiscences.

The Royal Society’s panel discussion, Sleep Talking  gives us high brow thinking on the connecting points of sleep between science and literature. Poet Lavinia Greenlaw, the first artist in residence at the Science Museum, Jonathan Coe, writer of The House of Sleep and winner of the Prix Médicis; Professor Russell Foster FRS, head of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford; and Deborah Levy, playwright, novelist and poet with a particular interest in the subconscious give their learned perceptions.

Podcasts – Designed for snoozing;

http://www.sleepwithmepodcast.com  – “The Podcast That Puts You To Sleep | A Lulling, Droning, Boring Bedtime Story to Distract Your Racing Mind.”

Fiction readings picked by the New Yorker –http://www.newyorker.com/series/fiction-podcast

Read: Some of the recommendations on this list are;

Classics:  “O sleep, O gentle sleep, / Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee.”Henry IV Part 2 by William Shakespeare,  The Book of the Duchess by Geoffrey Chaucer, “Insomnia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Poetry: “The thousand sordid images / Of which your soul was constituted; They flickered against the ceiling”- oft quoted from Preludes by TS Eliot. Also Insomniac by Sylvia Plath and Insomnia by Elizabeth Bishop.

Watch: Hollywood offers us tales with an insomniac twist. What these lack in poetic insight, they make up for in psychological performance. Also, interestingly perhaps, they offer mainly male perspectives;

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 3.00.43 PM
Christian Bale, The Machinist

The Machinist –   Brad Anderson’s dark psychological thriller about a sleepless factory worker who beings to doubt his own sanity found plaudits for Christian Bale’s transformative performance.

Insomnia – Christopher Nolan’s tries to repeat Momento success with this Alaskan based murder story.  The death of a local teen sets detectives (Al Pacino, Hilary Swank) on the road to a sleepless investigation

Fight Club – Typically dark of David Fincher, this 1999 film has kept a following. Edward Norton plays a ticking-time-bomb insomniac to Brad Pitt’s slippery soap salesman as they channel primal male aggression into a new form of therapy. Their concept catches on, with underground “fight clubs” forming in every town, until a sensuous eccentric (Helena Bonham Carter) gets in the way and ignites an out-of control spiral toward oblivion.


Insomnia driving you to distraction, then why not make a film of it? This creative analysis, Wide Awake ,2004 is  part doc, part collage, part experiment. New York filmmaker, Alan Berliner, explores his own insomnia in an artistic interpretation of living with a sleep disorder.  Review

For the doctor’s view, see the BBC’s  How to Sleep Better presented by Dr Robert Winston. A practical guide to sleep.

Research:  The scientific effort into what, why and how to sleep is being increasingly supported by the Media and social campaigns.  There are reams of articles on our sleep behavior.  It would appear this sleepless epidemic will not be allowed to rest:

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 3.04.51 PM

Huffington Post founder and editor, Ariana Huffington famously collapsed from exhaustion in 2007. She’s been obsessed with sleep ever since. Now she’s campaigning with her latest book The Sleep Revolution. Hear her entertainingly short Tedtalk on why sleep really does bring success here.

Get a sleep app and/or take part in a global sleep survey – https://www.worldsleepsurvey.comhttp://www.sleepcycle.com. 

Sleepjunkies.com – An extensive blog dedicated to all things sleep, written by Jeff Mann. Dive in.

Philosophy:  Modern scientific thinking may now dominate our understanding of sleep  but before it was more prevalent in the philosophers domain;

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 5.13.46 PM

The Philosophy of Sleep by Robert Macnish (1831). Review by: The National Magazine Vol. 2, No. 2 (1831), pp. 155-167

The Philosophy of Sleep:The Views of Descartes, Locke and Leibniz. James Hill, Richmond Journal of Philosophy 6 (Spring 2004)

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Thoughts on life and death in this classic work of literature by the second century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius – certainly makes you wonder at the perception of a mind from over 2000 years ago.  My recommendation to  fill those dead, wake-filled small hours.

A cultural gender divide?

Recent research has looked at the differences in sleep by the sexes and concluded our perceptions on insomnia really are different. So do men and women also differ in their cultural interpretations of sleeplessness?  This small selection here seems to suggest women prefer the minutae of the experience  – they encapsulate well the mental wrangling of long minutes alone at night – whilst men seem to opt for illusionist, more abstract workings – the psychological or extreme effects of sleep deprivation.

Somethings to mull on, your next sleepless night. Should beat counting sheep.




Featured Image: 

Night Creatures, Lee Krasner (1965)

Krasner had married fellow artist Jackson Pollock in 1945. Paintings made in the period after his death in 1956 are explosive bursts of feeling, outpourings of loss and grief. This work may be allied with a series she made between 1959 and 1963-Night Journeys-painted at night in the Pollock/Krasner barn studio on their rural property in The Springs, Long Island. At the time, she was going through a period of insomnia and began painting in the middle of the night. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1995.595/