The photographer William Green has produced a lovely sequence of shots of Tokyo taxi drivers asleep in their cars. "It seems to be a culture where, unlike the West, you're allowed to be asleep in public," says Green. "In the UK that's only OK if you're pissed or really knackered."
Vehicle designers at London's Royal College of Art have unveiled prototypes of futuristic "autonomous cars" that will permit their drivers (if that's still the right word) to work, relax -- and even sleep.
Research by scientists at Harvard Medical School, reported in today's Telegraph, shows that astronauts "suffer serious levels of sleep deprivation," averaging in the region of six hours per night (the average American adult gets seven). The effects of microgravity, and the fact that astronauts orbiting the earth will see the sun rise sixteen times per "day," are among the chief culprits for this poor sleep quality. And it has to be said that onboard sleeping conditions can hardly be conducive to the kind of sleep that astronauts might enjoy on terra firma. Here is footage of the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (famed for his rendition of Bowie's "Space Oddity" on the International Space Station in May 2013) securing himself in his "sleep pod" -- a sort of man-sized baby-grow suspended in what looks like a padded confessional -- and "floating/in a most peculiar way."
Volunteers on British Airways Dreamliner flights from Heathrow to New York were recently among the first to try out a hi-tech blanket woven with fibre optics which uses neuro-sensors to measure a person's brainwaves and changes colour to show when they are relaxed and meditative. BA plan to use the so called "happiness blanket" to investigate how passengers' sleep and well-being is affected by all aspects of the onboard environment, such as light in the cabin, the timing of meals, different forms of in-flight entertainment, and adjustments in seat positions. It is difficult to watch the promotional video in which BA reports these innovations without being reminded of the rather different attitude to airborne sleep exhibited by the Ryanair CEO, Michael O'Leary (see our post here), who once said, half-jokingly, that if passengers fall asleep on his flights "we wake them up to sell them things". Happiness blankets, it seems fair to assume, are not going to be available on Ryanair flights anytime soon. But perhaps we should admire or at least respect O'Leary's honesty in this regard; after all, he is in business to make money. It's possible that BA are missing a trick in letting their passengers huddle in happiness blankets when they could be awake and purchasing scratch-cards and sandwiches. Why close off a potentially lucrative source of revenue by letting passengers nod off? One way of answering these questions would be to recognise that, in the narrative of the happiness blanket, with its comforting fantasy of deep and relaxing slumber at 30,000 feet, BA has found a way to sell not scratch-cards or sandwiches but sleep itself to a host of prospective passengers.
One theme that crops up from time to time on this blog is the peculiar visibility, and vulnerability, of sleep on public transport (see our posts here and here). Buses, trains and planes are some of the only places in which sleepers regularly entrust themselves to the care, or at least the benign indifference, of people they've never met. Discussions of sleep on public transport typically focus on the relationships of trust and responsibility between sleeping and non-sleeping passengers. But what does the transport system think of the somnolent bodies that it conveys from place to place? Here is what Michael O'Leary, the famously outspoken CEO of the low-cost airline Ryanair, thinks about sleeping on planes: "You don't take a flight to contemplate your life in silence. Our services are not cathedral-like sanctuaries. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things."
A short article on the BBC website reports that male drivers are alarmingly prone to "micro-sleeps" -- that is, to "Light sleep that lasts from five to ten seconds during which the brain goes to sleep involuntarily." Micro-sleeps are, by their nature, dangerous interludes of unplanned oblivion, ones that we only perceive retroactively, usually by means of the sudden jolt or head jerk with which the micro-sleeper abruptly resurfaces into consciousness from a slumber that has taken him or her by surprise. Without this physical shuddering into wakefulness, the mind would not know that it had slept, because, as the sleep scientist Jim Horne puts it, "Sleep has to last beyond a minute or two for your brain to remember it."
"Is it unethical to not rouse someone who is sleeping on the subway, and may therefore miss his or her stop? It seems like the proper thing to do, but the person may not want to be woken up". This question was recently posed in the 'Ethicist' section of the New York Times Magazine. The magazine's in-house ethicist, Chuck Klosterman, opens his reply by remarking that "It is difficult to imagine a reasonable situation wherein someone sleeping unintentionally on the subway would not want to be woken up". Comments in a lively follow-up thread cover the danger of antagonizing the sleeper with unwanted attention; perceived differences between subway sleepers in New York and Tokyo (cf our recent post on Sleep on Japanese trains); the ability of some subway sleepers to snap out of sleep as they approach their destination; the potential intrusiveness of public sleepers who snore or slump against fellow passengers; and different etiquettes surrounding sleep on subway as opposed to long-distance trains. One contributor also tells the (possibly apocryphal) story of the heart attack victim whose body was only discovered by transit workers at the end of the shift because his fellow passengers had thought he was simply asleep. All in all, this thread is a valuable reminder of how mass public transport confronts us with something we simply don't encounter in other contexts: the sleep of strangers. It also shows how the ethics of sleep is an area that merits serious further discussion in critical sleep studies. Consider, in this regard, Klosterman's references to the intentions and desires of the sleeper ("someone sleeping unintentionally on the subway would not want to be woken up"). Do sleepers have intentions and desires? If so, can a sleeper be an ethicist? Or should we think of intention, desire -- and ethics -- as belonging exclusively to the conscious, purposive, waking self?
A new article by Brigitte Steger examines the unwritten rules governing behaviour -- especially sleeping behaviour -- on urban Japanese commuter trains. The discussion covers the gendering of inemuri ('sleep in a social situation that is not primarily meant for sleeping') and the functions of feigned sleep, or what in Japan is known as tanuki neiri ('raccoon-dog sleep'), on trains.