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Illustrations by Brittany Falussy

Episode 1: Rest Obsessed

We’re obsessed with sleep. So why don’t we do it better?

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Meet host Kate Berlant, and get ready for a deep dive into the fascinating world of sleep. So… how DID you sleep last night? If your answer is great, terrible, or so-so, welcome! Our society is obsessed with sleep; the best ways to do it, the tech to measure it, and how to hack it. Why? Maybe you want to work, play and live at peak performance with as little sleep as possible. Or maybe you throw money at sound machines, motion pillows and sleeping pills to deepen your rest. Sleep is at the core of our survival. So why aren’t we better at it? What happens when we don’t get enough? And what does our sleep say about us and our culture? We’re pulling back the covers on all of it, with some of the most fascinating sleepers, and our own sleep experts. So snuggle up.

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Read Episode 1 Full Transcript Below


Photo credit: Sela Shiloni

KATE [VO]: I’m Kate Berlant. I’m an actor, comic, writer, and, host of this podcast: “Are You Sleeping?” – From The Sleep Experts At Mattress Firm, Produced By Vox Creative.

No matter who you are or how you sleep, you are not alone. Welcome.

[MUX: DRUM BEAT, HIGH/LIGHT PIANO KEYS/CHORDS]

So I bet you and I share something in common. An obsession with sleep. Because one of the first things we ask ourselves each morning is, how did I sleep? And for a lot of us — and for a whole spectrum of reasons — the answer is maybe, eh, not well enough.

LAUREN: I’m a terrible sleeper and when I’m sleep-deprived, I’m just, like, cranky and irritable. At that point, I got on my own nerves.

KATE [VO]: I mean, sleep is so universal and yet so individual. maybe you work the nightshift.

Or you’ve got a new baby at home.

Some of us sleep alone or with a partner. or maybe you sleep with your whole family in the same bed.

Maybe you’ve struggled with stress or insomnia or sleepwalking. or maybe there’ve been times when you haven’t had a place to sleep at all.

KAMERON: It’s hard to realize how different of a person I was when I was homeless and when I wasn’t sleeping right.

KATE [VO]: The way we sleep can really have an impact on our waking hours. So unlocking the mysteries of sleep is a key to understanding who we are.

DR. YING-HUI FU: It is possible for a human to sleep four to six hours and still stay healthy and active and optimistic. That’s possible, right? we just have to figure out how to get there.

KATE [VO]: On “Are You Sleeping”, we’ll talk about the science of sleep, we’ll learn about the crazy things that happen when we don’t get enough sleep, and we’ll meet some of the most fascinating sleepers in the country.

Because, even if you think you’re a great sleeper or a terrible one, you might not really know your true sleep story. I know that I don’t.

And there’s so much for all of us to learn about ourselves and our culture. And it’s right here, under the covers.

[MUX FADES OUT WITH LIGHT PIANO CHORDS]

BENJAMIN REISS: Why have we made such a mess out of this basic human activity?

Professor and historian, Benjamin Reiss

KATE [VO]: That’s Benjamin Reiss. He’s an English professor at Emory university. He’s also a sleep historian and author of “Wild Nights. How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World.”

Benjamin says our modern world of smart watches, motion pillows, vibration headbands, and cutting edge sleeping pills has led to a situation where our relationship with sleep is…eh…

BENJAMIN: Deeply neurotic. [LAUGHS] You know, I mean, when you talk to people about sleep, the weird one is the one who says, “Oh, I sleep through the night every night, I have no trouble with sleep.” How many people do you know who say that? We all struggle with it.

KATE [VO]: There is so much we still don’t understand about sleep. even the most basic things like, ok, let me ask you, how did you sleep last night? Really though, think about it for a second. How did you really sleep?

I guess I’m one of the weird ones. I slept like a baby last night. I mean, I went to bed at ten and slept straight through the night. I swear, I didn’t even move.

Or at least, that’s what I think. But Benjamin says we often don’t evaluate our sleep accurately, or honestly.

BENJAMIN: One of the things that contemporary sleep science shows us is that self-reporting for sleep is almost worthless. So somebody can say, oh, I tossed and turned all night. but if you observe them in a sleep clinic, you’ll see, no, actually you got six hours, you know, it wasn’t, that wasn’t too bad. Or people say, i slept like a log. maybe they’ve had a number of micro-awakenings through the night that they weren’t even really aware of.

KATE [VO]: And what complicates all of this is, we don’t come with instruction manuals with ground rules for getting good sleep.

BENJAMIN: You know, nobody used to say go to bed at 10:00 p.m. and get up at 6:00 every single day. And that’s the best way to sleep.

KATE [VO]: Benjamin is talking about the so-called eight-hour rule. it turns out, that’s kind of made up. different people need different amounts, and not every night is the same.

BENJAMIN: But you find medical health advice books from the 19th century on, up until even very recently, saying really, the most healthful way to sleep is to get yourself on a very strict pattern and to treat your body kind of like a machine that shuts off at a certain time and it shuts back on at a certain time and then you’ll train yourself to have the proper sleep every single night.

[MUX: MACHINE WHIRRING NOISE]

KATE [VO]: And Benjamin says even the idea that we should sleep for eight-hours in one long chunk is a pretty recent development too.

[MUX IN: PIANO CHORDS]

KATE [VO]: That came along during the industrial revolution, when more and more people were schlepping off to work in a factory.

[MUX: TRAIN WHISTLE AND WHEELS]

KATE [VO]: It was a convenient motto — eight hours of work, so sure, let’s get eight-hours of rest, too.

BENJAMIN: Sleep is viewed as the downtime, the nonproductive time, the time that needs to be managed and done with the least possible disruption to worker productivity. And I think we’re living with the consequences of that tectonic shift in the economy and the organization of work.

KATE [VO]: Ok, that was then. But this is now.

[MUX: ELECTRONIC BEAT]

KATE [VO]: And Reiss says in many ways, we’ve got a better shot at good sleep today than ever before. So why do so many people feel that sleep is a battle, or at least a real challenge?

BENJAMIN: If you’re told to sleep in a certain way and you can’t do it, it’s going to mess you up. right? A lot of people are desperate to sleep, for very good reason. There’s some really, very profound consequences for not sleeping by the rules that our society has set for us.

KATE [VO]: And it’s not like we haven’t been open to rethinking sleep. I mean, we’ve always had to adapt how we rest — to our families, to our jobs, and sometimes to where we’re living.

As long as we’ve been sleeping, we’ve been tinkering with it. we’ve tried to manipulate it and outsmart it.

BENJAMIN: There’s a long, long history going back millennia of people looking for herbal remedies for insomnia, and certainly opium was one that caught on, and came into very wide distribution as a sleep aid. Caffeine came, not that far later, to work in the other direction.

[MUX: JET PLANE TAKING OFF]

KATE [VO]: More recently, militaries and space agencies have poured tons of energy into studying our sleep cycles, so fighter pilots and astronauts can stay awake longer at peak performance.

And surprise, that attempt to master sleep has bled into our everyday lives.

BENJAMIN: So, I think about all the books we have about training children to sleep the right way, all the alarm clocks, all the sleep monitoring devices, all the pills. We’re just battering sleep, bombarding it, trying to tame it, trying to get it pointed in the right direction, rather than opening ourselves to it and asking, you know, what does sleep have to tell us about ourselves and the world we live in?

KATE [VO]: And the problem is, the world we live in can be pretty unfriendly to relaxing and drifting off.

BENJAMIN: And right now, the waking future for a lot of people, especially young people, is scary. Climate change. Political turmoil. None of these things are good for sleep, oh my goodness. You know, the harder things get for people, the harder it is for them to access sleep and then poor sleep kind of compounds it.

KATE [VO]: I warned you, sleep is complicated.

[MUX: PIANO KEYS, FORMS A BEAT, DRUM IN THE BACKGROUND]

KATE [VO]: So snuggle up. because we’re going to cover a lot.

— AD BREAK —

KATE [VO]: So in my search to understand sleep, I found someone who is a sleep whisperer. like the person you want to call at three-am and ask, why the hell am I awake?! A sleep expert and therapist. A sleep best friend! Hmm, what could be better?

KATE: Hello.

SHELBY: Hello.

SHELBY: Kate’s a little soft for me to hear.

KATE: Oh…

KATE: Like That?

SHELBY: Okay.

KATE: Great.

KATE [VO]: and luckily for me, she agreed to meet me on a video call.

SHELBY: Hi, it’s nice to see you.

KATE: It’s so nice to see you. So before we dive in, I want to properly introduce you, of course. So Dr. Shelby Harris is a psychologist who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine. correct?

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Shelby Harris

SHELBY: Yes. Very much.

KATE: Okay, Great. So how did you get interested in studying sleep and solving people’s sleep problems?

SHELBY: So I, I actually as a kid, was a sleepwalker. So I…

KATE: [GASPS] Me too.

SHELBY: You were as well?

KATE: I mean, barely, a couple times. I just, I have one primary memory of sleepwalking. I woke up and I had socks on my hands. and then that just disappeared from my life. it never happened to me again, really.

SHELBY: That’s often what happens, is sleepwalking for the majority of people, it starts in kind of childhood and then usually peters out by early teens for most.

SHELBY: And so we talk about sleep walking, thinking about it’s kind of like that zombie-like kind of walking. There are different versions of it. So there could be things like sleep texting, [KATE: Uh Oh!] Sleep emailing. I’ve had a lot of people do like sexting in their sleep and have no clue.

KATE: No, yeah right! Who knew?

[SHELBY Laughs]

KATE: That’s wild.

SHELBY: Yeah. And then like people writing pretty…

KATE: Gorgeous poetry?

SHELBY: [SIGHS] …forceful things to their boss, [KATE: Oh My God.] And people will drive. A lot of it is…

KATE: Drive?

SHELBY: Yeah! They’re repetitive behaviors, things that you do normally in life, but you just do them in a much more fumbling way. Because remember, your brain, when you’re doing sleepwalking, your brain’s actually turned off. so you’re just kind of fumbling through things you normally do. I’ve had patients who’ve tried to cook in the middle of the night.

KATE: No! You could burn the house down.

SHELBY: Yeah, I had one patient who had like food scattered all around his bed. people have eaten, people will eat inedible things like Ajax or ground coffee grounds.

KATE: No!

SHELBY: Oh yeah. Everything. Smoking in their sleep.

KATE: Wow. It’s like truly so interesting. Um, I’m of course, now I’m just like, when you have a bad night’s sleep are you like, ‘I shouldn’t be struggling to sleep. I’m a sleep expert.’ I can just imagine you tossing and turning.

KATE: How many hours of sleep did you get last night?

SHELBY: Last night I got eight hours. I’m a pretty, I usually need about eight, eight and a half most nights.

KATE: Me too. [SHELBY: Yup.] Honey, I’m clocking in at, let me do the math on this, I think I got nine hours last night.

SHELBY: That’s impressive.

KATE: I go down quick.

SHELBY: Good.

KATE: And I stay down.

SHELBY: That’s really good.

KATE: Not to brag.

SHELBY: Yeah, I wish more people could do that. There are some people who fool themselves into thinking that they’re high-functioning and they’re great with less sleep. And if you look at what they do on the weekends, or if they pass out and they sleep like eight, nine, 10 hours on the weekends and then they fall asleep immediately every time their head hits the pillow, they probably actually need more sleep and have fooled themselves into thinking they need less.

[MUX: ELECTRONIC BEAT]

KATE: I mean, why do we even need to sleep? What is, why is that so essential?

SHELBY: The reality is, what we know more of is when you don’t sleep all the bad things that happen to us, right? So when we don’t sleep, it affects our memory and affects our, just, ability to think clearly and fast. It affects our mood. We have higher rates of depression, higher rates of anxiety. Higher rates of irritability, relationship problems.

SHELBY: All these things, right, like any sort of stress tolerance, impulsivity, all that.

[MUX OUT: ELECTRONIC BEAT FADES DOWN & OUT]

SHELBY: And then it impacts our bodies. So we have higher risks of certain types of cancer, not all cancers, but certain types of cancer, cardiovascular issues, stroke, heart attack, diabetes, metabolic syndrome. You can have higher risk of car accidents. I mean, it goes on and on and on. So essentially, sleep is that bedrock that keeps the kind of homeostasis of everything else working better.

KATE: Do you feel like there’s anything distinctly American about not prioritizing sleep?

SHELBY: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s a worldwide issue for sure. I mean, I live outside of New York, you know, the city that never sleeps.

KATE: Oh yeah.

SHELBY: And then I have patients that say all the time, I sleep when I’m dead, right? I think there’s this idea of, you’ve got to work, work, work and sleep is that side thing that when you can or eventually when you retire, then you’ll catch up on it. but the reality is, it doesn’t work that way.

KATE: Yeah.

SHELBY: It’s changing. I definitely, the fact that we’re doing a podcast talking about it is huge. So 10 years ago, this stuff was not spoken about the same way as it is now. It’s definitely changing.

KATE: Um, Shelby, I have a really basic question: people say words like “sleep cycles” and “REM” but I feel like no one actually knows what that means and I know that I don’t know what that means. So can you tell me what happens when I close my eyes and attempt to fall asleep?

[MUX AND SOUNDSCAPING TO SONICALLY ILLUSTRATE THE PHASES OF SLEEP]

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Generally, when you fall asleep, you cycle through these sleep cycles. And what that means is, it’s a bunch of different sleep stages. So it’s, you fall asleep, and then you go right, just for like a few minutes not even, we call it stage one, n1 sleep. And what that is, it’s super super light sleep. Do you ever have that experience like twilight sleep or you’re like in or out, you’re not sure? [KATE: Sure, Sure.] So you go from stage n-one then to n-two, and that’s where you spend the majority of your time throughout the night. And when you’re in stage two sleep, that’s really the kind of refreshing part of the sleep, right, to restore your energy levels essentially. And then once you’re done with stage two, you go to stage three, which is this deep sleep.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: So deep sleep is very restorative for your body. your brain is actually completely turned off, and that’s restorative for the cells of your body. Muscle repair, human growth hormone comes out during then. And then once you’re done with deep sleep, you cycle to REM.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: That’s when you tend to dream the most.

SHELBY: So what we talk about in rem sleep is that you’re dreaming. It’s emotion regulation. It’s mood regulation. So much happens during that point in your brain.

KATE: I had no idea. [LAUGHS]

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: So then what you do throughout the night is you have the cycle, so you fall asleep at stage one, then stage two, stage three, and then REM. Then you actually have a quick awakening. very brief. then you actually fall asleep again.

KATE: You always have a quick awakening?

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Very quick awakening, about five to seven times-ish per night. We have an awakening because we cycle through that many times throughout the night.

KATE: Wow. Because sometimes, I’m a very vivid dreamer. I go through cycles with it and I do try to keep a dream journal. I do find when I write them down right before I wake up, I’m more likely to remember them, you know, in the future. But that emotional state you’re talking about, because like, sometimes you have a dream and it brings up a certain emotion, you wake up with that emotion and it can be so potent it can, like completely color my day, at least.

SHELBY: Yeah, 100 Percent.

KATE: I have so many more questions, Dr. Shelby. Thank you. I’m just so glad that I get to dive deeper into sleep with you. So. Honestly, talking to you made me excited to go to bed tonight.

SHELBY: Oh, it was my pleasure. I’m glad you’re excited for sleep. That’s always a good thing.

[MUX IN: DRAMATIC THEME MUSIC, ELECTRONIC BEAT AND PIANO CHORDS]

KATE [VO]: And I hope this made all of you excited for sleep also!

I gotta say, coming up on this season, whew, we’ve got some pretty wild sleep stories for you.

BRIAN: You know, I’ve been able to turn nightmares into lucid dreams and just the whole journey of training my mind to recognize when I’m having a dream has been amazing.

LAUREN: Trying to get enough sleep is probably my single most recovery focus as an athlete. so much about my mental state, emotional state and physical state can be taken care of with a good night’s sleep.

AMY: I’ll sometimes, musically if I’m stuck, I’ll fall asleep and I’ll oftentimes work out the music in my sleep. I’ll just kind of trust that the answer is going to come to me.

Plus we’ve got answers to some of your most pressing sleep questions.

JESS: My partner has the worst sleeping habits. he snores like a bear and thrashes in his sleep.

DAN: They are completely afraid of and/or against sleeping on their own.

ELIZABETH: I’ve been using my smartwatch while I sleep and I always sort of curiously look at the breakdown of my stats. And I’m wondering if any of that is important.

KATE [VO]: To find out more about this podcast, join us at VOX-DOT-COM SLASH ARE-YOU-SLEEPING.

So subscribe now and tune in every 2 weeks for “Are You Sleeping?”. And hey, we’re a new podcast, so if you know someone who might like this show, please pass it along. Personal recommendations are one of the best ways to get the word Out.

Well, until next time, I hope you get some good rest, and please, go easy on yourself if you’re feeling tired.

[CREDITS]

KATE [VO]: “Are You Sleeping?” is brought to you by the sleep experts at Mattress Firm and Vox Creative. I’m Kate Berlant. Our Supervising Producer is Isaac Kaplan-Woolner. Taylor Henry is Production Manager and Jessica Bae Is Coordinator. Annu Subramanian is Executive Producer. We are produced by Catherine Fenollosa, Andrea Asuaje, Elin Lantz Lesser and James Trout.

Thanks to Benjamin Reiss, Dr. Ying-Hui Fu, Lauren Gibbs, Kameron Schmid, Amy Scurria, Brian Badgette, and our sleep expert Dr. Shelby Harris. You’ll be hearing more from all these folks in the coming weeks, so stay tuned! And finally, a big thanks to Heather Barrett and the Mattress Firm team, who make this show possible.

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