Millions of us suffer from insomnia. Can tech cure it – or is it the cause?

For Shakespeare, it was the chief nourisher in life’s feast. For the Dalai Lama, the best meditation. And for the technology industry, it is the next frontier of innovation, with the global market for sleep tech products set to reach over $76 billion in 2019.

Millions of us suffer from insomnia. Can tech cure it – or is it the cause?

In light of this, CES organisers the Consumer Technology Association launched its debut Sleep Tech Marketplace at the show this January, in partnership with the National Sleep Foundation. “From sleep trackers and silent alarms, to bedroom lighting, white noise and even smart beds, sleep technologies are helping us take control of our nighttime routines and rejuvenate efficiently,” says Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA.

It’s interesting that Shapiro mentions “rejuvenate”, because there are several schools of thought about what rejuvenation actually goes on while we’re dozing. The latest research unveiled at the University of Freiburg seems to support the synaptic homeostasis hypothesis, which states that sleep is necessary for the brain to consolidate memories and prepare for the next day. For the first time, scientists were able to show that sleep resets the build-up of connections that takes place during waking hours in the human brain.

Our greater understanding of sleep as a biological mechanism is enabling a new generation of inventors to rethink the place of technology in our night cycles. In many ways, however, the surge of interest in sleep tech isn’t down to scientific progress, but our culture’s unhealthy approach to one of life’s pervading necessities.

Can technology prevent burnout?

Arianna Huffington, the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, left her eponymous news website last year to focus on her corporate wellness service, Thrive Global. Upon her departure, Huffington told staff that she had “become more and more passionate – okay, obsessed – with burnout and stress and how we can reduce their impact on our lives”.

“Sleep deprivation has become an epidemic”

In her latest book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Huffington writes: “Death from overwork has its own word in Japanese (karoshi), in Chinese (guolaosi), and in Korean (gwarosa). No such word exists in English, but the casualties are all around us. […] Sleep deprivation has become an epidemic.”

When Huffington gave her now-viral TED Talk on sleep, she discussed how sleep deprivation one-upmanship has flourished in our modern business world. “For men, sleep deprivation has become a virility symbol,” she noted. Not only is this damaging to personal health, but it’s an unsustainable situation for the world’s leading companies and institutions to be in. So how to tackle this global sleep crisis?

Perhaps it should come as little surprise, but there’s an app for that. More specifically, Rythm, a neurotechnology company based in Paris and San Francisco, has created the world’s first active wearable to improve sleep quality. Designed to be worn while sleeping, Dreem is a headband that uses sound synchronised to your sleep cycles to improve the quality of your shuteye. To understand how this works, it’s important to realise that sleep is an active state. A single night’s sleep consists of multiple sleep cycles, with each cycle following a well-orchestrated sequence. Light sleep, then deep sleep, leading to REM (rapid eye movement), which is when most dreams occur.dreem

(Above: Rythm’s Dreem headband)

But humans have been sleeping without the aid of technology for millennia – do we really need wearables to help? “You’re right in that we’ve been sleeping the same way for a very long time,” says Hugo Mercier, Rythm CEO and co-founder. “However, with technology rapidly changing every aspect of our lives, we believe that we can use its positive influence to [improve] quality of sleep too. We at Rythm believe that we need to get past traditional and inaccurate tech (activity trackers, sleep apps, etc) and push towards technology that is validated by hard science.”

Using bone-conduction technology that transmits sound without earplugs, the audio stimulation supplied by Dreem is designed to help the brain stay in deep sleep. Characterised by slow oscillations, deep sleep is crucial for brain energy restoration, memory consolidation, hormone balance, and delaying degeneration.

If you’re wondering how noise – not usually associated with a good night’s sleep – can aid in prolonging deep sleep, it might help to picture a swing. In the context of brain-activity patterns, the slow oscillations observed during deep sleep are like a swing on a windy day. The audio stimulation is supposed to be akin to the repeated pushes that help the swing oscillate regularly. Users can view their sleep brainwaves via the accompanying iOS app, and more importantly, track sleep history over time.

Counting sheep

Speaking of tracking sleep history, Hugh Langley, US editor of Wareable, recently took part in a self-conducted sleep study. “I wanted to see how much tech out there is actually helpful in going beyond just tracking to help us make improvements to our sleep,” explains Langley. “I don’t suffer from any severe sleep problems, but in the past I’ve been bad at sticking to bed times and making sure I’m getting consistently good night’s sleep. I also wanted to see if there were things I hadn’t picked up on that were negatively impacting my sleep.

“Caring about sleep quality is important, but there’s such a thing as caring too much”

“One thing I found – and one thing the doctor warned me of, actually – was that thinking too much about [sleep] actually started having the opposite effect I wanted it to. In one week in particular, I was fretting over data and devices so much, worrying about getting enough sleep, that I got a bit of sleep anxiety and struggled to fall asleep. Caring about sleep quality is important, but there’s such a thing as caring too much.”

Rajiv Pant, CTO of Thrive Global, also points out tech’s drawbacks in the bedroom: “Recent technology products, especially those with LED displays, have decreased both the duration and quality of sleep for most people. Scientific studies show that exposure to blue light emanating from screens decreases the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps control our sleep and wake cycles. At night, such light from devices disrupts the body’s biological clock, causing impairment of sleep.smartphone_dark_night_sleep

“In addition to blue light, devices such as smartphones in the bedroom also disrupt sleep in many other ways, as they are the portal to our to-do lists and daily stresses. People stay up late web surfing or check their phones in the middle of the night, so sleep quality is impaired.”

However, Langley is keen to stress that for people who have trouble sleeping, some technology can be very helpful. “Some [products] I used monitored outside stimuli such as light and noise, and sometimes these things can mess with our sleep without us realising,” reasons Langley. “For people who sleep fine, maybe they don’t need the tech – but who knows, [by using tech] they may still find ways to get a better night’s rest.”

Pant is more cautious, advising instead that “while new sleep technology can certainly help improve your sleep, they’re not a substitute for healthy sleep practices. It’s still essential to not keep screens in the bedroom, to exercise, and to reduce anxiety and stress.”

If burnout is modern epidemic then it is inevitably tangled – one way or another – with the screens and sensors that make up 21st-century life. There’s no clear-cut answer on whether rejuvenating wearables cancel out distraction machines, but one thing is for sure: with a third of us suffering from some form of insomnia during our lives, now is the time to wake up to the extent of the crisis – whether the solution lies in technology or not.

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