Construction and enforcement of “normal” sleep

Written by Jonathan Hume

This is the second in a series of blogs written by our PhD students in which they introduce themselves and their research. Today the blog has been written by Jonathan Hume. Jonathan is based at the School of Sociology & Social Policy and his supervisors are Dr Ana Manzano and Dr Tom Campbell.

Photo of Jonathan. He is facing the camera and smiling.

Photo of Jonathan.

Where do we draw the line between healthy and unhealthy, difference and disability, individuality and impairment? When does something about our bodies move from acceptability to pathology? When you dig down, this is the key question of my PhD. We have tried hard to understand what disability is and have numerous frameworks for understanding it (e.g. the social model, ableism) but an understanding of impairment has been somewhat taken for granted. I hope that, by studying sleep, I can contribute to our understanding of what impairment is and how it originates.

I’m studying sleep, particularly sleep timing, because of personal interest. I was diagnosed with non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder, which is very rare among sighted people, while studying for my MSc. I break the social rules of sleep – I sleep during the day, I sleep ‘too long’. It is presented as truth within medicine, biology and the general public that the human circadian rhythm (or ‘body clock’) simply must be 24 hours, and that it cannot be otherwise. But mine, as demonstrated by numerous blood tests and so on, is 26 hours. But even within the ‘typical’ 24 hour rhythm, there is a great deal of variance. In the image at the top of this blog, all the sleeping patterns except Number 1 are considered pathological. They illustrate three of the circadian rhythm sleep disorders.

[Picture description: A series of four idealised graphs, showing 4 people’s sleep times over a single week. The first, labelled ‘Average’, shows someone sleeping around 10am and waking up around 6am. The second, labelled ‘Delayed sleep phase disorder’, shows someone sleeping at 2am and waking up at noon. The third, labelled ‘Advanced sleep phase disorder’, shows someone sleeping at noon and waking up at midnight. These three show as straight lines down the graphs. The last, labelled ‘non-24-hour sleep wake disorder’, shows someone’s sleep getting progressively later, forming diagonal lines down the graph.]

By beginning with Foucault’s ideas of biopower and governmentality (that is, how we are enticed to control our own and others’ behaviours and bodies), I want to ask why the non-24 hour circadian rhythm is pathological. What purpose does the Delayed Sleep-Phase disorder (Number 2) serve. This isn’t just an issue of people not sleeping at night: Number 3 is an example of the Advanced Sleep-Phase disorder. However, the enforcement of sleep rules goes beyond the clinic. It has entered our vocabulary (“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man rich healthy and wise”) our law (noise prohibitions at night) and our culture. As previous Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne once asked: “Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”?” Sleep is a biological, moral, political and cultural issue.

My experience of N24 resonates with my experiences as a gay man and the history of that identity. Deviating from the heterosexual norms of behaviour was (and sometimes still is) understood as a pathology. This was often justified by reference to the higher rates of depression among gay men. After all, they are suffering because of their sexuality, so it must be an illness! Of course, we know that this suffering was a result of ostracism that was tacitly endorsed by this reasoning. There are high rates of depression among people diagnosed with N24, too, accompanied by unemployment, harsh and unsuccessful medical regimes, isolation and judgement. I don’t suffer from a circadian rhythm disorder; a circadian rhythm disorder is justification for my suffering.

That’s the personal motivation for my PhD. I want to understand the origins of my suffering and the social structures in which I live. Then there’s the academic motivation: there is relatively little work on understanding how particular bodies are understood as impaired. And finally, there is a social motivation. Everyone sleeps, but we don’t all do it in the same way. Like so much of human bodies and behaviour, sleep is a great deal more varied than we generally imagine. By understanding the forces that hide this diversity, we can challenge them and, hopefully, we can all sleep a little more soundly.