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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892 near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly 100 years later, at 1:23am on 28 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, killing two people instantly followed by multiple deaths from radiation. Highly radioactive fallout was sent into the atmosphere and the long-term cancers are still being assessed. Understanding how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires an understanding of biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time. But the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently-arrived chronometers. Life answers to more ancient beat that probably started to tick early in evolution. Embedded within our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian clock” that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure and much more. Normally we experience a 24 hour pattern of light and dark, and this signal is used to align our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine tune physiology and behaviour in advance of the changing conditions. Temperature, blood pressure, cognitive performance all decline in anticipation of sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily cycles of sleep and waking are the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex. Such apparent pointlessness has relegated sleep to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we grudgingly tolerate sleep and at worst we regard it as an illness that needs a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Although sleep may be the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it coordinates the removal of toxins;  promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, combined with entertainments including social media, have eroded sleep time by up to two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Night shift workers work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust to the nocturnal regime and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep, along with working against biological time, has been linked to multiple health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsivity and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of infection and cancer; increased cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes; weight gain; and the susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability are all associated with disrupted sleep.  

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we are going to stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will surely help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive and more likely to become ill. Why not introduce higher frequency health checks and provide advice for those at risk? As night shift workers are more likely to have heart disease, type two diabetes and be obese, why not provide food that reduces these risks? Finally, why not use emerging technologies to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home?

So what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters, and many other like them, were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time, and a break-down in procedure. Tiredness and circadian disruption do not cause such tragedies; they simply make them much more likely. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter who subsequently died, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. Holmes fell asleep, and forgot that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through. After the crash, Holmes was charged with manslaughter and found guilty, but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring Holmes, and for failing to use procedures that would have detected he had fallen asleep. 

Professor Russell Foster CBE, FRS is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience, Chair of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology, Director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute and Fellow of Brasenose College at the University of Oxford, and co-author of the new book “Circadian Rhythms: A Very Short Introduction”.

Russell gave the keynote speech “Sleep – Freedom to Think” at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead on Friday 17 March, broadcast that day at 10pm on BBC Radio 3

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder