The mythology, technology, and commercialism of our slumbers.

In Greek mythology Hypnos was the god of sleep. Born of mother Nyx (night) and father Erebus  (darkness), Hypnos lived with his twin brother in the underworld caves.

His brother’s name was Thanatos — the god of death.

The  underworld caves received no sunlight or moonlight. They were  completely silent, and surrounded by poppies and other sleep-producing  plants. Hypnos was said to be a calm and gentle god who helped mortal  humans in their time of need. His name is, of course,  the origin of the  word hypnosis.

The  average person spends a third of their life sleeping. This is a natural  state of mind, just like being awake. It involves altered  consciousness, less sensory activity, reduced muscle activity, and, of  course, reduced interactions with surroundings.

There are two basic types of sleep: REM sleep and non-REM sleep (which has three different stages)  and all are linked to specific brain waves and neuronal activity. If  you plug someone into a  brain scanner while sleeping, you’ll begin to  notice patterns. The three stages of non-REM sleep take up most of your  night, and they’re pretty straightforward: feeling drowsy, light sleep,  and the deep sleep you need to feel refreshed in the morning.

But then there’s REM sleep, which is a lot more interesting.

Also  known as paradoxical sleep, REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes  after you close your eyes. Most of your dreaming (or nightmares) occur  during this time, while your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind  closed eyelids and your arm and leg muscles become temporarily  paralysed. (There’s a reason for the paralysis: it prevents you from  acting out your dreams. And when it doesn’t work well, you end up with  thrashing around or sleepwalking).

The  sleep cycle alternates between non-REM and REM sleep, and repeats  around every 90 minutes. So you’d have about 4–6 cycles in a good  night’s sleep.

A  good night’s sleep. That’s an oft-used phrase, and with good reason.  While it seems like just an inefficient switching-off of the self, there  are actually many important things going on inside.

Some  people are natural short-sleepers. They don’t close their eyes for very  long, but  don’t suffer any of the sleep-deprivation health effects  either. Unless you fall in that special category, however, missing out on sleep could bring on a host of consequences: cardiovascular disease, cancer,  dementia, Alzheimer’s, metabolic problems and a weakened immune system,  to name a few.

No  wonder, then that sleep has been given an important place in popular  culture. One can trace back to the words of William Shakespeare’s Henry  the Fourth, unable to sleep because of all his worries:

O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Going  forward to the 80s, sleep became more of an  enemy of power than a  friend. “Money never sleeps,” proclaimed infamous Wall Street financier  Gordon Gekko. Striving for “efficiency”, many people sacrificed sleep in  favour of “getting things done”.

Finally  in the 2010s Arianna Huffington wrote “The sleep revolution”, a  rational narrative on the importance of sleep to our mental, emotional  and physical health. Now there’s even such a thing as “sleep market”,  with an estimated value of $84.9 billion.

How  do we decide when to sleep? It starts with the hypothalamus, a  peanut-sized structure deep inside the brain. Among its many parts is  the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN, a thousand-cell cluster with a  hotline to your eyes. It tracks how much light you’ve been getting, and  coordinates with your brain-stem to transition between wakefulness and  sleep.

The  SCN doesn’t just blindly follow the light, though. It keeps rough track  of the 24-hour cycle, and has been dubbed the “master clock” of your  nervous system.

The  brain-stem and hypothalamus coordinate to produce a brain chemical  called GABA which reduces their “what’s happening in the world” region.  GABA is a versatile chemical. It works to influence mood and anxiety,  and there’s even a GABA-producing microbe that, people suspect, makes  rats so fearless they walk straight into the jaws of a cat.

It’s not just microbes: a 2020 study found that GABA is also  increased when doing yoga — with beneficial effects this time.

As  meditation has gained greater mainstream popularity as a pillar of  wellness, mindfulness apps are offering services meant to induce — you  guessed it — sleep. Meditation app Headspace, offers guided meditation  programs to help you sleep. Pzizz is a London-based app specialising in composing “psycho-acoustic” lullabies to soothe your mind. Calm meditation  app unicorn — which was named app of the Year in 2017 by Apple — offers  meditation “Sleep Stories” for anxiety relief, stress, and all sorts of  daily issues you tend to face.

But it’s not just about falling asleep; people also have trouble finding out where they can sleep. Once again, startups have come to the rescue.

New York-based Nap York,  offers a quiet cafe away from the hustle and bustle of city life,  as  well as sleep pods for napping, yoga and meditation classes. Los  Angeles’ Spa Lé La offers a nap room for 25 minutes for $40. London’s Pop & Rest and  Tokyo’s Nescafe Harajuku provide nap pods and beds for stressed city  workers.

To  return to GABA: that’s just the first step in falling asleep. Next  comes your pineal gland. A gland shaped like…I was going to say “like a  pea”, but “like a pine-cone” is probably more appropriate, since that’s  where it gets its name. Pine, pineal — get it?

The  pineal gland is sometimes called the “third eye”, because while it  can’t see detailed pictures like our real eyes, it can at least make out  when there’s light and when there isn’t, perhaps like what early  earthworms and other creatures had before they grew full-blown eyes.  (But in this case, the knowledge of light comes from your eyes via the  optic nerve and hypothalamus, so it’s not such a spectacular feat after  all).

While  the hypothalamus and brain-stem are busy escorting your body to  dreamland, the pineal gland pitches in by ramping up production of  melatonin. Melatonin is always around in small quantities, helping you  to stay awake, but when it reaches higher levels it makes you go to  sleep instead. Does that mean sleep is a higher level than wakefulness?  I’ll leave that question to the philosophers for now.

Higher  level or not, commercialisation has crept in here too. Melatonin  supplements promising a good night’s sleep, by companies like HUM Nutrition, have been around for years. Now, vaporizers can deliver melatonin even faster than a tablet, straight to the bloodstream.

Remember  the story of the princess and the pea? The royal girl was so delicate  that, though she was sleeping on a tall pile of feather-beds, she still  got bruised by the tiny pea placed right at the bottom.

Today’s  people aren’t so delicate — though maybe they’d notice a pine-cone —  but that hasn’t stopped companies from making it easier to sleep. The  Italian startup Balluga has released a smart bed that includes an anti-snoring system, while London-based sleeptech startup Simba has produced the first dual spring and memory foam mattress of its  kind. And the princess would be please to hear of the Sleep Number 360 smart bed,  designed to sense shifts in the body and continually adjust the  mattress pad’s temperature and positioning throughout the night.

Meanwhile, Finnish startup Oura offers a ring which measures pulse waveforms, heart rates and body temperature and creates charts for the user to compare.

To  know the scale of the industry, look no further than New York mattress  firm Casper. Valued at $1.1 billion six years after its launch in 2013,  its initiatives include a quarterly print magazine, fitness and wellness  partnerships, and most recently its launch of The Dreamery — a nap  lounge featuring nap pods, complementary beverages, and other post-nap  amenities. American Airlines announced a partnership with Casper to provide its complimentary sleeping products on longer flights, for first-class fliers and some premium-economy ones too.

Some  people would be repelled by all this. Is putting so much effort into  naps even worthwhile? But if you’re wondering “To sleep or not to  sleep”, that is the question, you won’t like the answer!

Researchers from Boston University have discovered that if you’re not getting  enough sleep your brain won’t have adequate time to clear out toxins.  These toxins — specifically, beta-amyloids and tau proteins — could over  time speed up the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s  disease. In fact, during the slow-wave sleep phase your brain may  actually be taking a long bath in watery cerebrospinal fluid, to wash  out all the accumulated gunk.

But that’s not all.

Not sleeping will also affect your immune system and its ability  to control infections, cancer and other sickness, because sleep-time  for you is work-time for it. What’s more, the two hormones in your body  that control the feelings of hunger and satiety will get disrupted too.  The result? You’ll end up eating more, leading  to increased fat storage  and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

Don’t worry, sleep is not just a battle for your health. During this time,  your brain makes decisions, creates and consolidates memories, makes  creative connections, and even learn and practices how to perform  physical tasks.

Although everyone vaguely knows the benefits of sleep, it’s often hard to catch up. You just have to get the work done, so you stay up late once…and again…and again. The  irony is, taking time off to sleep would actually make you more productive, not less.

To counter this problem, some companies have taken to installing sleeping pods in their workspaces.

The UK’s National Health Service recently started installing these futuristic devices, where doctors could take a moments’ respite  from their frantic coronavirus-induced schedules.

Sleeping pods such as the ones developed by GoSleep are now available in a growing number of international airports. Speaking of travel, startup LumosTech has launched a mask that tailors consumer’s sleep to their schedule in  order in avoid the effects of jetlag. Other brands are offering sleep light masks and light therapy goggles to combat jet lag while travelling.

Hypnos,  the ancient god of sleep, now has the new title of “sleep ambassador”.  You can find him in wellness-focused hotels like Six Senses Spas, where  he curates guests’ sleep experience and environment.

Back  then, Hypnos would lull you to sleep in a cave where no light was cast  by the sun or the moon, and in front of which you would find poppies and  other sleep-inducing plants. Today, major chains like Marriott and  Hyatt are using IoT to create connected hotel rooms with features like  smart lighting for better sleep. Meanwhile, Westin offers a “Sleep Well  Menu” that promotes a better rest through a curated list of  sleep-enhancing super-foods on their room service menu.

Hypnos  and his wife Pasithea had a number of sons called the Oneiroi, who were  the bringers of your dreams. The Oneiroi live only in your REM sleep. Dr Hobson,  a Harvard psychiatrist and sleep researcher, said your dreams represent  a parallel consciousness state that is running continuously, but which  is normally suppressed while you are awake. If Oneiroi bring forth your  dreams, and dreams are a  parallel consciousness, that surely makes  Oneiroi the sons of gods!

Sleep,  it seems, has suddenly become very popular. And very expensive. But it  doesn’t have to be that way. Sleep is something we’ve been doing for  millennia, and there’s nothing stopping us from doing it right now. Look  around, find a cozy spot, and settle in.

Because your future, as they say, depends on your dreams.