Sleeping was once thought to be the opposite of living—“little slices of death” was how Edgar Allan Poe described each passing night. To accompany her essay on sleep from Kinfolk Issue 23, Harriet Fitch Little rounds up a selection of podcasts that set out to prove that nothing could be further from the truth.
Drawing on science and snakes, sleepwalkers and storytelling, these downloads are unlikely to help you drift off—but they’ll certainly enrich your understanding of what happens when you do.
Sleep and Your Screens, Not Friends
New Tech City, May 2014
This 15-minute episode of WNYC’s New Tech City (now Note To Self) is a concise primer for anyone interested in the fascinating and recently very fashionable theory that humans used to sleep in segmented increments. Host Manoush Zomorodi interviews Roger Ekirch, the academic who first uncovered references to “first sleep” and “second sleep” in historical texts, and Thomas Wehr, the psychiatrist who discovered similar patterns in sleep lab studies. Zomorodi’s zeal for the topic at hand makes it easy to forget that polyphasic sleep is still far from an accepted orthodoxy, but it’s hard not to share her enthusiasm for the theory—especially after hearing Wehr’s poetic description of the “higher state of mind” we’re missing out on by only sleeping once a night.
Fear of Sleep
This American Life, August 2008
The five stories that make up this hour-long episode will leave even the most fitful sleeper feeling grateful for the comparative normalcy of their nights. Mike Birbiglia—comedian and director of last year’s critically acclaimed film Don’t Think Twice—reveals that he is such a hazardous sleepwalker that he must sleep in a tight sleeping bag, wearing mittens so he can’t unzip it. In another segment, the anonymous “Miss M” describes what it’s like living in a tenement where roaches crawl into your ears at night and require hospital visits to be extracted. As always, host Ira Glass and his producers find ways of telling these unusual real-life stories without succumbing to sensationalism.
Radiolab, May 2007
Why do we sleep? Radiolab looks first to the animal kingdom for answers: the dolphins who float on the surface of the sea to rest half their brain at a time, the iguanas who sleep with one eye open when snakes are near. From predators to proteins, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich then interview the scientists who think they’ve at last identified exactly why sleep is “the best housemaid you’ve ever had.” This is a podcast known for its rich and inventive sound production and the fact that sleep is (often) silent proves no barrier to that: This episode includes a beautiful soundscape that seeks to explain how musicians might perfect a tricky rhythm overnight, and an audio recreation of rats’ neurons firing as they navigate a maze in their dreams.
The Economics of Sleep
Freakonomics, July 2015
Stephen Dubner has so much to say about sleep that he’s spread it out over two hour-long episodes. The best material is weighted toward the front, where Dubner addresses sleep as a question of social disparity. In the US, African-Americans sleep on average an hour less per night than the white population—a hugely significant variable given that lack of sleep has been labelled a public health epidemic. Dubner speaks to the people working out how this difference came about and why it matters, while also highlighting some spectacular data collection failures along the way—like the fact that for decades the most frequently cited study of sleep took as its sample group an extremely homogenous university-educated population. As is so often the takeaway from Freakonomics, listeners learn to question the numbers.
Within the Wires, July 2016
And now for something completely different. Within the Wires comes from the same stable as Welcome to Night Vale—the alternate reality drama that was an early podcasting success story. This spin-off is introduced as a series of guided relaxation tapes, but quickly proves itself to be nothing of the sort. In this episode a calm, mysterious narrator (Janina Matthewson) insists repeatedly that she is helping the listener sleep via “a completely fictitious exercise to help free you from insomnia.” Instead, you gradually realize, she’s actually helping map out an escape route from the mysterious facility where you are currently incarcerated. It’s a beautifully crafted example of podcasting’s potential as an immersive storytelling medium; just don’t make the mistake of trying to actually use it to battle insomnia—it’s likely to have the exact opposite effect.
Words:Harriet Fitch Little
Photography:Emma Le Doyen