Historical record of sleepiness?
March 28, 2016 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Are we more tired than our ancestors? What is causing this?

At a recent high school play, I noted that many of the cast bios mentioned that "sleeping" was a favorite hobby. Most everyone I knows loves to nap. This doesn't match up with how I perceive people lived historically. Am I wrong?

Have people always been so tired? Is it a documented fact that people nowadays are more tired than previous generations, or do we have more leisure time in which to nap? Is it a lack of physical activity, or a diet issue? Have there been any well-known studies on the matter?

Or, is it that there's less stigma connecting sleepiness and laziness, and people have always been this tired but just sucked it up?

posted by amicamentis to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
We have artificial light now, so we can stay up as late as we want and wake up as early as we want. This is largely to our disadvantage as a species.
posted by phunniemee at 12:26 PM on March 28, 2016 [10 favorites]

Yeah, we collectively go out of our way to mess up our sleep patterns - this was bad with artificial light, worse with TV, pretty freaking awful with the internet, and don't get me started on smartphones.

I mean there's a lot of other stuff at play, but if it weren't for the circadian disruption none of the rest of it would add up to a hill of beans.
posted by SMPA at 12:42 PM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, and high school kids have double the problem that everyone else does, because of how the brain works during adolescence.
posted by SMPA at 12:43 PM on March 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

high school play

Teens sleep/nap far more than adults.
posted by French Fry at 12:46 PM on March 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Sleep researchers have generally thought that sleep deprivation has been getting worse, but a sleep study last year found that hunter-gatherers, whose sleep patterns have presumably been stable for thousands of years, sleep about the same as Americans today.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:50 PM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've had Never Enough Sleep: A Brief History of Sleep Recommendations for Children lined up to read for a while. Haven't gotten through the article yet but it looks at concerns about kids getting enough sleep and recommendations dating back to 1897.

Conclusions: "A lack of empirical evidence for sleep recommendations was universally acknowledged. Inadequate sleep was seen as a consequence of “modern life,” associated with technologies of the time. No matter how much sleep children are getting, it has always been assumed that they need more."

And yeah, puberty pushes the circadian cycle back right when teens are typically getting yoinked out of bed earlier for high school, so double whammy.
posted by yeahlikethat at 12:50 PM on March 28, 2016

Response by poster: Would high-school aged kids have had these issues 200 years ago? Are there contemporary diaries written by teenagers saying basically "I wish I could just sleep all day", or parents writing about how lazy their nap-taking children are?
posted by amicamentis at 12:57 PM on March 28, 2016

Would high-school aged kids have had these issues 200 years ago? Are there contemporary diaries written by teenagers saying basically "I wish I could just sleep all day", or parents writing about how lazy their nap-taking children are?

200 years ago most kids were either at boarding schools (being beaten into submission), being tutored at home, or working. There weren't really children, just small, stupid adults.

Working people walked around exhausted, whether or not they were teens, if you were tutored at home, you had it great. Lessons would start on YOUR schedule, and if you got fractious, your governess or tutor had to roll with it. If you were working, you were undernourished, cold and tired most of the time. Boarding schools were pretty strict and hard, to build you into a strict and hard man I imagine.

I highly recommend What Jane Austen Ate, What Charles Dickens Knew. To get historical perspectives on all sorts of things.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:08 PM on March 28, 2016 [12 favorites]

As far as teens go, I believe recommendations tend toward 8 - 9 hours of sleep per night, but the ability to fall asleep early isn't there. I remember reading that, ideally, teens would have a later start time for school than elementary kids, who tend to be early risers, but practical limitations usually mean high school students have an earlier start time. Kids with a lot of extracurricular activities, especially those in the drama department, have to juggle after-school practices with study time and other responsibilities.

So yes, the schedule of busy teenagers doesn't lend well toward good sleep hygiene. But you also have to realize your sample population here probably was asked to put together a bio for the program around the same time they were crunching through some long rehearsals and, in lieu of saying "I spend all my time rehearsing for the darn play" they took a moment of group levity to advocate for the naps they're currently favoring.
posted by mikeh at 1:14 PM on March 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Well part of it could just be that high school students have very high sleep needs in general, but American high school schedules insist on ignoring that, and start the school day very early.
posted by peacheater at 1:14 PM on March 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

High school basically didn't exist 200 years ago - the closest equivalent would be the teenagers at Harvard or Oxford, and they were an incredible minority. Though I've read about midnight naked drunken cavorting in Harvard Yard dating back to the 18th century at least (one of John Adams's kids got expelled for it,) so they were pretty similar to teenagers today when left to their own devices.

And Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both wrote about staying up too late (one was more into cavorting, the other reading) and how that's super bad for you.

It's worth noting that candles and oil for lamps were expensive, by the way. By switching to electricity, you got a lot more light and also way more people actually had it.
posted by SMPA at 1:21 PM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it's also possible that self-deprecation has become more of a culturally acceptable trend; we* simultaneously live under more pressure (overscheduling?) and have more license to admit it in a sufficiently cute/upbeat way. Thus not being able to take care of your duties is shameful, but admitting that you're wiped or exhausted or want to sleep for a week is almost a badge of honor.

When you read older novels there's a lot of acknowledgment of the fact that some people of sufficient leisure rose at whatever hour they chose; also, they drank tea and coffee all day while relaxing or entertaining. They also smoked and drank and did other things that probably made them feel like crap, but didn't have the same conventions about expressing it.

Plus, modern medicine and psychiatry is now such that saying you're exhausted as a young person does not get you committed to bed as an invalid or sent to a spa in Yalta to recover.

Lastly, yeah, I was always exhausted in high school because holy shit waking up at 7:00AM?? I haven't done that since I graduated; not in college or for any job I've held. (I'm also a hardcore night owl, so yeah.)

*Obviously things vary for people of different socioeconomic status across time
posted by stoneandstar at 1:23 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's a recent theory floating around that we used to be up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night; I'm not sure how much I believe it, but it's an interesting thing to read about.
posted by kmennie at 2:44 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just a thought -- if many of the cast bios for this play mention sleeping as a hobby, perhaps it's a theatre department in-joke? These may not be independent data points you're looking at, although the general drift is worth noting.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 3:31 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is a fascinating question. Although it's possible that it's a theater department in-joke, I don't think it's unique enough to be an in-joke. I see many teens and young adults who list sleep as a hobby/"thing" they enjoy, completely straight-faced/serious.
posted by samthemander at 5:21 PM on March 28, 2016

I graduated 20+ years ago and lots of our bios mentioned sleep, too. Usually when we got around to writing up the bios for the program, it was a couple of weeks before the show and the schedule was really ramping up -- kids were spending tons of hours at rehearsal several times a week and on weekends (I remember there were weeks when I never saw my house in daylight). So between that and normal homework and chores at home, we were pretty wiped out.
posted by mochapickle at 5:59 PM on March 28, 2016

I think people have been exhausted ever since they had to start living on someone else's school or work schedule. Maybe this wasn't a thing in the days of hunter-gatherers, but it's probably been a thing since people started having jobs and working.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:29 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

The bios are by teens. I'm the parent of a teen. She sleeps a lot. A LOT. I think teens are kind of obsessed with sleep. Ymmv.
posted by pearlybob at 9:38 PM on March 28, 2016

Some related reading:

Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

A. Roger Ekirch's At Day's Close: Night in Times Past

Matthew Wolf-Meyer's The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life
posted by ritual system at 3:38 PM on March 29, 2016

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