Uncomfortably Numb

sleep instructors, anaesthetics, and sonic freedom

In early 2021, a meditation app called Wave decided to rebrand itself to a “sleep experience company.” This title, in the tradition of tech startups, is as titillating as it is nonsensical. How do you “experience” that which suspends your consciousness? And even if you accept that sleep is a voluntary act rather than a compulsion—how can it be experienced through a device that exists to keep you awake?

Wave’s answer is simple enough. You turn your bedtime routine into something like a Peloton class, switching on a livestream of a sultry-voiced sleep instructor who will put you to bed. And the app’s pivot to sleep is hardly unique. It is joining dozens of existing digital sleep managers and assistants that promise to cure your insomnia, your stress, your embarrassing inability to do something that is not really an action in the first place.

Sleep wasn’t always such a lucrative market niche. “Sleep is for the weak,” “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” “the early bird gets the worm,” “sleep is the cousin of death.” This was once the dominant view of sleep: as the antithesis of an intentional, fulfilling life, a pesky physical need that needs to be minimized. Plato, an early sleep hater, wrote that “no one who is asleep is worth anything, any more than one who is not alive. And whoever cares most about living and thinking is awake as much as possible.”  

It’s hard to say when the sleep revival started—perhaps with the outpouring of business studies that warned of the correlation between sleep-deprived employees and lower revenue—but the plentiful landscape of sleep apps, oil diffusers, vitamins, and special pillowcases points to a markedly new conception of this ambiguous feature of our lives. Pinterest’s prediction for 2021 trends is optimistic, highlighting the sleep industry under the headline “Zzz time is the new me time.”

Whether Wave’s word choice is accidental or not, branding sleep as an “experience” is a brilliant way to weave it into the web of productivity in which wellness apps reside. In her book The Anaesthetics of Existence, philosopher Cressida Heyes analyzes the changing meaning of the word. By definition, an “experience” is different from an “action,” flowing through us rather than happening at our command. At the same time, she writes, “not everything that happens to us counts as experience. We build ourselves as special and distinctive subjects by doing special and distinctive things—only these count as ‘experiences.’” 

The term “experience economy,” which reinforces the idea of experiences as curated building blocks of our identities, has been in use since at least 1998, when B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore differentiated them from goods and services. “Commodities are fungible, goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable,” they write. Booking a trip to an Airbnb that is a giant potato is an experience; so is going to a festival, getting a personalized subscription box, using artisanal spices, taking pictures at the Museum of Ice Cream. 

At first glance, sleep hardly fits into even the most barebones definition of experience, which requires existing in time. And of all the parts of our lives attributed to biological necessity, it is by far the most devoid of agency. Modern conceptions of food and sex, for example, are steeped in choice, or at least the illusion of it.

Sleep, however, is unavoidably outside our control. It strikes us down no matter how hard we struggle against it, and we can either accept the fall, or suffer the consequences. It erases us by plunging us into a void without space or time or perception. If you woke up without a clock, could you say how long you were gone? If you couldn’t see your bed, would you know where you were all the while? It’s not surprising that sleep is often compared to death, the ultimate erasure. And there is something uncanny about how casually we acquiesce to it—so willing to routinely discard the ego and identity we spend all of our waking hours laboriously nursing. 

But if sleep has remained unchanged in its effects on our consciousness, our ability to experience time in waking hours by filling it with actions, activities, and experiences has increased drastically. How many times a day do we pick up the phone to stave off timelessness? On public transportation, in waiting rooms, upon waking up, before falling asleep, while sitting on the toilet, on the couch, in the gaps of silence within conversation. Those in the business of pathologizing technology call this addiction. But is the urge for the phone itself, or for the escape of absence in an immediate, if illusory, way? 

Anyone who has been depressed, unemployed, or bedridden knows the feeling of stagnant time, of nonexistence, of the days passing without you being in them. Often the way we mitigate this feeling is by scrolling or, ironically, by sleeping to drown the torpor in unconsciousness. 

Heyes further explores the vacillations of “experience” by introducing what she calls “anaesthetic time”—moments of sedation, passivity, stupor in which we intentionally experience timelessness without descending into sleep. This includes those coded as low-class (opioids, meth, alcohol) and those revamped for high class consumption (edibles, psilocybin, meditation, sensory deprivation, more alcohol) with punchier marketing and colorful labels. These numbing agents are forms of respite from the ceaseless labor of late capitalism, Heyes writes, a way to do nothing without feeling completely unhuman. 

It seems that whatever anaesthetic experiences we may seek, they must be dressed up in the pretense of agency, of volition that would affirm our selfhood. Even as leisure and cultural consumption is redefined as something passive, it is served up to us in an array of choices. You might plan to use television only as background noise, but you can still choose from dozens of options. If you want to experience the suspension of time and space, you can take a scientifically optimized power nap, or better yet, buy a ticket to a sensory deprivation tank.

If philosophers and productivity gurus thought sleep a shameful and undesirable state because it denies us self-sovereignty, today’s sleep optimizers target that very flaw. “People will bring intention to more restful regimens,” writes Pinterest Business under its sleep category. Intention, regimentation, decision, will—these are the defining qualities of sleep that is also “experience.” 

Sleep aid apps have different ways of highlighting their ability to hand you the reigns of your slumber. SleepTown, a top recommendation in many listicles, gamifies sleep, brazenly inviting its users to consider it a matter of self-control. You open the app when you go to bed, and if you refrain from using your phone through the night, a little city appears. 

Calm, the “world’s happiest app,” recruits celebrities to read bedtime stories and sing lullabies, turning sleep into another arena of parasocial wish fulfillment. You are now free to choose whether Priyanka Chopra, Matthew McConaughey, or Idris Elba will accompany you into unconsciousness. When Calm recorded singer Harry Styles reading a bedtime poem for premium-level subscribers, they released a trailer, as if it were a feature film. When it finally became available, his fans crashed the app.

“You have no idea how sleep deprived you are right now,” Rise, an app that promises to help users pay off “sleep debt” alerts potential clients. Little did you know, “you’ve become numb to the feeling of living with sleep debt.” In their marketing copy, unmediated sleep is numbness, and Rise’s trackers and schedules are the only way to come to your senses: “you'll awaken feeling and performing your best.”

Sleep and life are swiftly hurtling towards each other, threatening to collide on the warped intersection of agency and numbness, where unmediated idleness is as loathsome as constant productivity. Like sponges, we soak up and immediately dispose of the endless apps, shows, articles, snacks, and images in our midst. Like psychedelic animations, our states of being morph seamlessly from timed work, to mindless leisure, to soothing drinks and drugs, to semi-conscious toggling between screens, and finally, to sleep. Sweet dreams!

—Lizz Pankova

virtual past

Before there was SoulCycle, there were “mind gyms”—establishments that peddled altered (but sober) brain states to the professional class. In 1980s Los Angeles, self-identified “floaters” flocked to one business full of saltwater isolation tanks, where, buoyed by water with higher salinity than the Dead Sea, customers lay encased in pitch black; they “intensify my dreams,” one customer explained. The gym also offered “stroboscopic goggles” and beds affixed, supposedly, with electromagnetic fields. It was all meant to be a salve for the work week, and an escape from one’s own mind.

In 1960, James Buckwalter began tinkering away at the first sleep machine, inspired by a motel AC system’s gusts of white noise. Ever since, Buckwalter’s white noise machine (later called the “Sleep-Mate”) has done the relatively unremarkable job of soothing us all to sleep. Yet the machine emerged alongside similar contraptions that would, decades later, find themselves in a SoCal mind gym. In the sixties, sound machines were being created for use as anesthetics in dental procedures. Recording artists were dabbling in psychoacoustics, releasing LPs that promised enhanced moods. As our circadian rhythms and limbic systems became increasingly disturbed by the marketplace, such contraptions offered a solution.

There are conflicting accounts of this history. One recent thinkpiece in The Atlantic described the white noise machine as a “sonic consequence of a cherished American value—freedom of choice.” The sleep machine, the article concludes, exemplified a new “personal sonic freedom.” This is an absurd idea, obviously: In reality, the popularity of such machines correlates with the encroaching and unstoppable noise pollution of the time (which, like most things, was and is distributed inequitably)—as well as the intensifying demands of capitalism, which, as Jonathan Crary lays out in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, has rewired our circadian clocks in favor of the nonstop.

We are left, then, to lock ourselves in saltwater tanks and blast radio static into our ears. And the solutions continue to proliferate. One study from last year called, terrifyingly, “Evaluating Character Embodiment and Trust Towards AI Based on a Sleep Companion” investigates the best ways to get users to trust an Alexa-like device that monitors and regulates their sleep cycle. Another suggests the use of virtual reality as a kind of anesthetic, including in medical procedures. Such is the price of sonic freedom.

—Katya Schwenk

what we’re looking at 

The downward spiral: popular things in Spike Art Dean Kissick on infinite oreo flavors, internet art, and the endless acceleration of content 

A Good Drug for a Bad World in Elemental P.E. Moskowitz on ketamine.

Touch (Not Vision) is the Foundation of Human Cognition in Intuition Machine Carlos Perez on how we experience the bodily self 

The Internet's Tubes in The Reboot Deep sea cables and the internet.

A fortune teller said I’d peak at 28 in Popula Daphne K. Lee on destiny revealed.

Thanks for reading! We write HYPERREEL every other week; subscribe to get it in your inbox: