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I’ve had some kind of odd connection with sleep pretty much my whole life. When I was a kid, I was one of those very energetic kids who crashed hard into sleep given he righ provocation. My mom once took a picture of me asleep on he floor clutching a bat and some pencils. I don’t remember
What the game was I had been playing when I fell asleep, but it was clear that it had come upon me suddenly.

As a teenager, I felt like I never got enough sleep. I woke up at 5:00 every morning; I had a church class I attended before school, and a paper route with morning delivery on the weekends. I fought my wakeup time, used snooze, and generally had a hard time with it. Some days I would take a nap in the afternoons, but not every day. Later, I quit the paper route and got a different job which didn’t get me up early on the weekends, so I did what many people do: I was tired and grumpy most of the week, and then I slept late on the weekends. During the summer I also slept late as a general rule.

During my first year of college, I reveled in staying up late. I was often up until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. In fact, there was a guy on my floor who occasionally was getting up around he time I was headed to bed. I had arranged my classes so that I didn’t have to get up too early, but I still missed class occasionally from oversleeping.

Then I spent two years of my life as a missionary. I was on a fairly rigid schedule: up at 7:00, in bed at 11:00. That sounds like it ought to be enough sleep, but still there were times that it wasn’t. I once fell asleep while standing on someone’s doorstep. I worked with a missionary who fell asleep while reading out loud in someone’s home. This kind of thing was worse in the summer, when it was hot, or when we had been kept up later than usual by something. I did, however, learn how to wake up consistently on time and ready to go.

When my missionary service was finished, I went back to finish my degree. I had, by that point, become more or less an early riser, but it’s never quite that simple. I discovered that if I was getting up to go hiking, I didn’t have any trouble waking at 4:00 or 5:00, but that it was difficult to consistently be up, alert, and on time to an 8:00 class. If I was trying to get up for something genuinely distasteful, he odds were even worse.

As a graduate student, my sleep habits were pretty normal, at least at first. Toward the end of my grad school experience, though, I became interested in polyphasic sleep, and I eventually successfully adapted to a polyphasic schedule. For about six months I only slept 2 out of every 24 hours. Our house was clean, I got lots of work done, and I had time to bake bread. I’ll write more about the experience of being polyphasic another time; it’s worth writing about, but doesn’t really fit the theme of this post. I got of the schedule when we were traveling. It was just too hard to find places to nap at the right times. Since then, I’ve wanted to get back into a polyphasic groove, but there has always been something standing in my way. Perhaps someday I’ll do it again. That’s not really the point of this exercise, however.

These days, I wake up most mornings around 4:00. I can take naps at work without too much trouble, and I’m becoming more and more interested in sleep from an academic (computer modeling and applied math, more than physiology or psychology) standpoint. Rather than wondering specifically about adapting to a polyphasic lifestyle, I’m more curious about what I can do with my sleep that will have a significant impact on my quality of life. For example, I’ve found that I get tired and cranky at about 7 pm nearly every night. Is it possible that a prophylactic nap can mitigate this? If so, when is the best time to take it? Today I tried a nap at about 5:00 pm. I didn’t stay asleep for the whole time I had web aside, but I did experience some improvements in my evening mood. I’ll have to see if it continues to help.

I have many more questions, of course, and that’s largely what this blog is for: to give me a space to explore these issues, and to scratch my sleep itch in an organized way.

To the best of my knowledge, I’m inventing this field. So, I’ve been thinking, what really would one need to get into the sleep design business for real? Part of the problem in trying to answer that question is that we don’t have a perfect understanding of why we sleep, or more specifically, what the different stages of sleep do for us.

Even without that kind of knowledge, there are some things we can start to do. At minimum, to begin engineering one’s sleep cycle, it’s important to be able to figure out:

  1. Circadian phase
  2. an individual’s PRC
  3. amplitudes for the various ultradian components in an individual’s periodic sleep tendency
  4. sensitivities to various inputs (light, sound, melatonin, etc.)
  5. current sleep architecture

Have I missed anything? Probably. In addition to these, I’m interested in studying the effects of the various approaches to brainwave entrainment which are available. How easy or difficult is it to selectively drive a particular sleep stage? Can one construct a sound track which guides the sleeper through a predetermined sequence of sleep stages? In other words, how much of sleep while under the influence of one of these products is under the brain’s control, and how much is entrainment to an outside influence? Are there factors which make entrainment more likely? More robust?

The last piece of the puzzle, once we have good measurement tools and a way to predictably drive the sleep system, is a set of simulation tools. How solid is the two process model? Do there need to be separate processes for each sleep stage? Does the system admit multiple stable limit cycles? What about aperiodic cycles? These last two questions are interesting from an applied math standpoint, and are things I could probably get published if I can answer them satisfactorily.

In terms of specific tools, the measurement tool I really need is an EEG. There are a couple of options floating around, including the Zeo, but I’m not sure if I can access the raw data easily enough with the Zeo. If it just gives a hypnogram, it won’t be nearly as useful to me as if I can see the raw EEG data. Of course, it may be possible to use the Zeo headband with my own amplifier, which would get around that problem. There’s also an EEG headset being marketed as a potential tool for gamers which looks interesting, but their SDK is windows only, and I’m preferring Macs these days.

There are lots and lots of binaural beats recordings and programs out there. Probably the one that interests me the most at the moment is Pzizz, but I’m guessing that as I get into this, I’ll end up writing my own. Likewise for the simulations. There’s nothing out there at the moment to get at circadian phase or to run a proposed sleep schedule through a two-process simulation. All of these things are on my list. For now, though, I’m off to bed.

Based on the reasoning in my first post, one might think that rather than invent a new word—hypnotecture— I ought to talk instead in terms of sleep design or sleep architecture. While I will and do use the term sleep design, I can’t use the words sleep architecture to mean hypnotecture, simply because the phrase means something else already.

When sleep researchers talk about sleep architecture, they are referring to the structure of a person’s sleep during the night. We don’t really notice it, since sleep generally implies that one is not self aware, but when we sleep there are a number of distinct types of sleep we can experience. These are called sleep stages, and are characterized by the details of our brain wave acivity. The first four stages are simply numbered one through four, though stages three and four together are referred to as slow wave sleep, or SWS. In addition to these, there is a fifth stage, called REM sleep (for Rapid Eye Movement). The numbered sleep stages run from lightest (stage 1) to deepest (stage 4); REM sleep is sometimes referred to as paradoxical sleep because brain activity looks in many ways as if the person is awake.

Over the course of a typical night, a person transitions between all of these stages. The overall structure and timing of these transitions are what are referred to as sleep architecture.

I’ll write about each of the stages in its own post, but the short version is that stage 1 is basically a transition between waking and sleeping, an doesn’t seem to have an identifiable function. SWS (stages 3 and 4) seems to be where the restorative effects of sleep are concentrated. REM sleep has been linked to memory and learning, though the mechanisms are not clear. Finally, stage 2 seems at first blush to be mostly filler, though it is possible to argue from the results of a couple of long term sleep reduction experiments that it’s needed for some reason.

Since each of these sleep stages is characterized by a specific range of frequencies in brain activity, various products exist which claim to stimulate that particular frequency of brain activity, and therefore preferentially drive a particular stage of sleep. I haven’t used any of these products extensively, and I haven’t yet read the relevant research to know if they actually work as advertised. If they do work, the implications for hypnotecture are significant.

Since the different sleep stages seem to yield different benefits, if one could influence which stages happen when, the potential for proactive sleep design is obvious. I plan to report on some experiments along these lines in future posts.

Most adults in the industrialized world spend more time sleeping than they do in any other single activity. In spite of his fact, most people probably spend less time thinking about how and when they sleep than they do about any number of other things which make up a much smaller portion of their lives. For example, while the standard work week on the United States is (nominally) 40 hours, the average adult spends less than 40 hours per week on all free time activities combined (reading, television, computer, religious practice, and so on), and about 55 hours per week asleep(1). Time spent with children and personal care activities other than sleeping each get an even smaller slice of time.

Perhaps the most striking contrast is with food. There are many similarities between food and sleep: both are biological urges, both can affect mood and health, and both eating and sleeping are activities most people do every single day. Food, however, is a $1.5 trillion industry in the US alone. Some of the difference is understandable, since eating is both consumptive and social in ways that sleeping is not. The fact remains, however, that while the average person spends 4-5 times as much of their life sleeping as eating, the time and money spent thinking about, planning for, and preparing to eat vastly outweighs that for sleep.

Perhaps we feel that we can get by doing what comes naturally. After all, that seems to have worked for a long time, right? The difficulty is that, as is true of food, our sleep related circumstances have changed dramatically in the last hundred years or so. Electric lighting allows us to essentially ignore the seasonal difference in day length, and in fact to largely ignore the difference between day and night. Globalization takes advantage of this; one may have to work nighttime hours to keep track of what colleagues are doing on the other side of the world. Time zones and daylight savings further disassociate us from local solar time, and we have alarm clocks to enforce our unnatural schedules. Many businesses operate continuously, from the convenience store which is open 24 hours a day to the factory with three full shifts of workers. Late nights and early mornings encourage us to use stimulants such as caffeine to wake up in the morning and pick ourselves up in the afternoon, and then stress, light, and activity push many toward depressants to wind down at night. Stimulants and depressants have been around longer than the other innovations mentioned here, but are still fairly new on evolutionary timescales.

The point here is that we have already moved out of a natural sleep rhythm; our sleep has become as regimented and industrialized as any other aspect of our society. And it has largely done so in response to the demands of other aspects of our lives, essentially without purpose or planning.

The time has come for us to reclaim our sleep. While there is much about sleep that we don’t understand, we know enough to enable us to conciously craft our sleep habits; to be architects of our sleep. Hence the term hypnotecture. Just as architecture is not merely construction engineering, but also incorporates ideas about design for aesthetics — form as well as function — so too hypnotecture is more than simply sleep design. Sleep should not only serve its biological purposes, but can provide add enjoyment, depth, and richness to life.

Our mission, then, is to

  1. understand the function and mechanism of sleep,
  2. develop strategies for designing sleep habits optimized around function, and
  3. tweak those habits to maximize their sleep aesthetic.

We welcome those who wish to join us in our journey.

(1) See, for example, Bianchi et al. (2007). Changing Rhythms of American Family Life. Russell Sage Foundation Publications.