Cressida Heyes didn’t think much about sleep until she had a baby, fell into a tailspin of sleep deprivation and eventually “fell apart.”
“I became incredibly confused and unreliable,” said Heyes, “unable to see a story or even a thought through from beginning to end. Every task was difficult. I can see why it is a central technique of torturers.”
That’s when the University of Alberta philosophy professor and political scientist realized sleep was indeed “a big deal.” As a philosopher, she couldn’t resist interrogating this mysterious state in which we spend a third of our lives if we’re lucky.
It soon struck her that spending enough time in slumber is integral not only to our physical and mental health, but also to our very sense of self. It takes an enormous amount of energy to hold our egos together, she said, and we need a break from ourselves. Sleep, “like a little death,” is the closest thing we have to shuffling off this mortal coil, if only for a few hours.
When she brought her ideas to the classroom, she was surprised to discover that students today are more interested in talking about sleep than sex.
“When I started teaching sexuality studies in the mid-’90s, students thought it was pretty risqué in a university classroom,” she said. “Now they just roll their eyes when I talk about sex.”
When the discussion turned to sleep, however, the students’ eyes lit up. They started confessing anxiety about the pressures of work and study, and why they can’t get enough. From there, they were “easily pushed into questions of philosophy,” said Heyes.
There’s no doubt sleep is a subject that’s been getting a lot of attention lately. That’s partly because new research is finding new links between sleep, learning and memory, but also because getting a full 40 winks has become harder with the competing demands of modern life, coupled with the intrusion of any number of blue screens into our lives.
Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution became an instant New York Times bestseller when it was released last spring. And according to Heyes, the popular 2011 children’s book Go the F—k to Sleep—famously narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in audiobook form—is emblematic of the despair and frustration we all feel with 21st-century sleep deprivation.
Waiting to wake up
What interests Heyes most, however, is how sleep has been represented in art and literature over the ages, and what those representations reveal about how humans experience perceptual categories often taken for granted—such as time, gender and agency.
Sleeping Beauty is a telling case in point. In the original versions of the fairy tale—set down by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm—a 15-year-old Little Briar Rose pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, the drop of blood symbolizing menstruation, and falls asleep.
According to one interpretation, she “silently and smoothly makes the transition from girlish daughter to marriageable young woman without any of the usual emotional and physical messiness of adolescence,” said Heyes. “When the prince arrives and kisses her, it’s a sexual awakening—metaphorical and literal.”
In other words, sleep becomes a trope for the way women have historically experienced time and agency in western culture—waiting passively for men to arrive and give their lives meaning. Men, on the other hand—and by extension western culture—experience time through action.
"I had a bunch of mansplainers telling me I was wrong about that,” said Heyes. “It’s not universal, but one of the ways we understand time is that human beings move time along through their actions. Progress happens because western people do wonderful things.
“But there is something very masculinist, very European and very western about that. I argue it has to be played out archetypally by this unconscious woman.”
In Sleeping Beauty, and in countless other representations of bourgeois femininity, said Heyes, sleep “signals a period of the ultimate passivity, in which the suspended animation of the young woman provides a backdrop against which history progresses—a history driven by men.”
Heyes is also looking at contemporary renderings of sleep, such as actor Tilda Swinton’s 2013 art installation at the Museum of Modern Art where she slept in a glass box to be gawked at by museum patrons. Or a famous 2004 video by Sam Taylor-Wood of soccer star David Beckham taking a nap.
"It's about seven minutes long, and nothing really happens,” said Heyes of the Beckham video. “At one point he shifts and maybe even drools a bit."
So what’s the fascination with that? Heyes said she’s still working it out.
Heyes’ examination of sleep will form part of a book-length project she’s working on called Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience in Its Absence. For more on her research, listen to Sleep, Sex and Fairy Tales, a podcast that aired last month on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.