Loss of Control Is the Necessary Condition for Sleep

A Conversation with Alexandra Correll

by Anna-Lena Wenzel

To what extent do working conditions influence our sleep behaviour? In the post-industrial era, do we sleep better, or do digitalisation and the unboundedness of working conditions deprive us of sleep?

ALW: You are a specialist in neurology with a focus on sleep medicine. What sleep disorders can patients suffer from?

AC: A large proportion of patients have a sleep disorder in the form of insomnia: they suffer from too little sleep, have trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night, or wake up early. This often stems from inner restlessness, dysfunctional cognition, or hyperarousal – a kind of ‘hyper-vigilance’.

Then there are patients who sleep too much, for example because they fall asleep uncontrollably during the day or sleep more overall. In addition, there are people who do strange things in their sleep, who sleepwalk, lash out, or act out dreams. There are subtypes that can be diagnosed in the sleep lab.

ALW: Does that mean that patients come to the sleep lab and sometimes stay overnight?

AC: There is usually a consultation first, to decide whether it is necessary to go to the sleep lab. If it is, the newly arrived patients are fully wired, filmed, and miked for examination. An EEG is made, eye movements and chin muscle tone are measured, as are leg movements and breathing. On the basis of this polysomnography, sleep is analysed and, if necessary, appropriate therapeutic measures are discussed.

ALW: Can people with insomnia be helped?

AC: Yes, they can. There are medications, but the gold standard is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBTI).

ALW: The basic idea for the next edition of Urbane Künste Ruhr’s Ruhr Ding exhibition format on the subject of sleep is that, in the course of industrialisation, sleep rhythms have adapted to the specific working conditions here in the Ruhr region. So, the question now is how the post-industrial era affects sleep patterns. Would you agree that neoliberal economies and increasing digitalisation do affect sleep?

AC: Of course, there’s no blanket answer to that. I would say the more neoliberal and freer working environments have positive aspects and negative ones too. The extent to which people used to sleep more and the degree to which insomnia is part of the Western current world are neither of them firmly established; scholars are still arguing the points. I’m also reluctant to say that everything was better in the past. Jonathan Crary, in his 2013 book 24/7, still argues that late capitalism seeks to overcome sleep in order ultimately to strengthen production- and performance-optimising momentum by means of permanent wakefulness and availability. But nowadays the accepted orthodoxy is that sleep itself can be production-enhancing, productive, and performance-optimising. Sleep as the last bastion against exploitation is, one might say, becoming increasingly assimilated. It has become a lifestyle product.

ALW: In her article The 24/7 Bed, published by Urbane Künste Ruhr, Beatriz Colomina argues along similar lines to Crary, talking of late capitalism being the end of sleep. Every minute of our lives is reserved for production and consumption, she argues, as evidenced by 24/7 use of the bed.

AC: The thesis that the bed has become the embodiment of the neoliberal work system, in which work and leisure activities dissolve in a negative fashion, may be true, but the question is whether this is a reason for sleep disorders. An important and effective method of treating chronic insomnia is restricting time in bed: until a consolidated sleep phase is re-established, only the time that one is effectively asleep should be spent in bed. And a clear spatial separation of work and sleep can definitely help to mark divisions.

ALW: That makes sense, but this separation requires a lot of discipline because smartphones are so many different things at the same time: an entertainment medium, as well as work and communication devices.

AC: Absolutely. On top of that, the app industry is always providing solutions – in the form of relaxation music, meditation, and sleep-promoting apps.

ALW: What I find interesting about sleep is that it has this uncontrolled moment.

AC: Yes, loss of control is the necessary condition for sleep. There’s this famous saying that sleep is like a dove: if you try to grasp it, it flies away, but if you reach out without looking, it comes to you. You can yearn to control sleep as much as you like, but in the end it is stronger. All attempts to overcome sleep – whether through medication, drugs, or giant solar reflectors to ward off the dark of night – have none of them worked.

ALW: For me, that puts sleep close to art, since art also often has something to do with the intangible, with engaging with an unknown.

AC: There are actually some books that see sleep as a form of resistance, like George Perec’s Ein Mann der schläft (A Man Who Sleeps), which is about sleep as a refusal and a withdrawal from the world, or Ottessa Moshfegh’s book Mein Jahr der Ruhe und Entspannung (My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Whereas in Perec the protagonist takes refuge in sleep out of desperation, in Moshfegh sleep is a consciously ‘designed’ state.

For me, sleep is more of a poetic state. True, it is a physiological necessity, but, unlike eating, it is associated with a different state of consciousness; in a sense it is unreal. I like that moment when you fall asleep: it’s a state where fragmentary dreaming begins and yet is still interwoven with reality. Quite apart from that, though, sleep is an incredibly complex process in which an extremely large number of things happen, though as yet we don’t know in detail exactly how.

ALW: I’d like to come back to today’s working conditions. In the Schlafen kann ich, wenn ich tot bin (I Can Sleep When I’m Dead) event, part of Urbane Künste Ruhr’s mobile discourse format Wandersalon, Dietmar Osses, director of the LWL Museum, drew attention to the many shift workers working in the newly created logistics companies of Amazon, DHL, or IKEA, in order to highlight the fact that, while we may live in post-industrial times, shift work is far from eliminated. Furthermore, the argument that work is increasingly shifting to the home office only applies to specific occupational groups; geriatric nurses, salespeople, factory workers still travel to their workplace every day. One of them is my cousin, who works as a nurse in Witten. She reports that many of her colleagues suffer from burn-out. Is there a connection?

AC: It has often been shown that shift work is anything but good for your health. It is hard to extrapolate this case by case; nevertheless, it’s definitely a burden, and any strain can reduce resistance to burnout. There is shift-worker syndrome, which manifests in disturbed sleep. In recent years it has been repeatedly demonstrated that sleep is very important for stabilising both psychological and physiological life, as everyone can probably confirm from their own experience.

ALW: I would be interested to know whether there are other factors that influence sleep behaviour, such as urbanisation or changes in living conditions. People don’t live so cheek by jowl any more; they tend to have more space.

AC: Yes, quiet and space are definitely important, but darkness is crucial too. Urban conditions are often associated with light at night, and we now know that light can penetrate through the eyelids. The impact of housing conditions is difficult to assess; I would more inclined to say that it is existential concerns that quite literally rob people of sleep.

Commuting also makes a strong contribution. Long daily journeys to work mean time subtracted from sleep. In the past, mining settlements sprang up right next to the mines, but this urban structure has dissolved. The lockdowns and Covid-19 measures made for an interesting experiment with the interdependencies of sleep and working conditions. Instituting home offices eliminated commuting journeys for many, allowing them to sleep longer. For some, on the other hand, the situation was an existential burden – financially, health-wise, or psychologically – and it could be observed that sleep quality decreased. One study showed that some people who previously had sleep disorders slept better. One reason could be that fears of not being able to sleep, which play a massive role in chronic sleep disorders, have decreased.

ALW: If we try to correlate sleep behaviour with current socio-political developments, it seems obvious to me that sleep exemplifies how organisms are based on patterns of circular movement, phases of activity alternating with phases of withdrawal. Sleep could support the argument that the days of exponential growth are over and need to be replaced by a cyclical economy.

AC: Yes, that’s a nice segue. There are indeed cycles and rotations in many organic systems. They show that phases of rest are always needed, regenerative moments in which things subliminally resolve themselves.

ALW: With regard to the Ruhr region, you could say that after its industrial growth phase it is now in hibernation.

AC: Yes, the collieries have gone into a kind of slumber – although that would imply that they will eventually reawaken sometime. I would prefer to talk of how they are converted places – leisure parks, sports facilities, or museums – with a different form of activation than occurred in the days of industrialisation. Perhaps one that is more conducive to sleep.

Alexandra Correll is a medical specialist for neurology with a focus on sleep. She also holds a diploma in architecture and a postgraduate diploma in Sleep Medicine of the University of Oxford. In her work she treats the influence of environmental conditions on sleep.

Anna-Lena Wenzel is an author, artist and publicist, who runs the Online City Magazine 99% Urban. She writes for magazines and artists and works as a curator and host for different institutions. She often works in collective contexts and most recently realized the exhibition Class Issues – Art Production In and Out of Precarity.

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