Sleep is the only area of life about which you become more expert the less you practise it, as anyone who has ever been cornered by a veteran insomniac will know. There is a macho prowess that comes from slogging through the working day on a few hours a night – a kind of bedchamber Ironman for those who can’t swim or cycle or run. Conversely, people who admit to being capable of curling up for a snooze in the glove compartment of a jeep with shot suspension as it careens through the Atacama Desert, tend to do so coyly, as if confessing to having a trust fund or a mildly inconveniencing superpower.
Technology and sleep do not go well together. Watching backlit screens before bedtime seems to be the most reliable route to insomnia. But since technology usually boasts of being able to solve the problems it has created, there is a ready supply of devices on the market that claim to help. So in order to monitor and improve my “sleep performance”, I decided to try some out. Which was how I found myself, lying in bed, with Neuroon ($299), an “intelligent sleep mask” strapped to my face, and with my head cushioned by Dreampad ($179), a musical pillow. The pillow was linked up to Sense ($129), a sleep monitor and, under the sheets, lay Beddit ($99.95), another one. I was tooled up and ready to slumber.
The benefits of Neuroon are supposedly twofold: to track your sleep – identifying when you’re in the REM phase, when you’re sleeping lightly and so forth – and waking you up as gently as possible by simulating sunrise with tiny embedded LEDs. Its flaws are immediately apparent even before the technology has been cranked up. The perfect eye mask ought to imperceptibly hug the sides of the head and float over the eyes with the diaphanous kiss of a zephyr. Neuroon is bulky and coarsely textured; in the centre of the brow sits a surprisingly heavy pack containing lights, batteries, buzzer, biometric sensors and emergency sandwiches for its nightly shift. When you put it on, it feels like a small rodent is squatting on your face. It connects to an app on your phone, as all these devices do, via Bluetooth. Your data is uploaded in the morning. According to Neuroon, I wake up between 33 and 52 times a night and never enter deep sleep, a state of affairs that would be alarming, possibly life-threatening, were it not patently inaccurate. As for my personal dawn chorus, the jerky brightening of lights is suggestive of the sun not so much gently rising as hauling itself up a cliff face; and the weirdly distant, vibrating hum that accompanies this is suggestive of an imminent drone strike.
Sense is not just a monitor but a multi-tasker: a latticed globe that glows fluorescently when your hand hovers above it, so that it looks like something out of a Quidditch kit. It tells you useful things like, “It’s too bright in here” when the lights are on and “It’s too hot in here” when it’s 30 degrees outside and your sheets feel like they’ve just come off the barbecue. Its “sleep pill” monitor is a sensor that clips unobtrusively to your pillow (to my mind, the words “sleep pill” sound sinister – wasn’t that what Magda Goebbels told her liebe Kinder they had taken on their final night in the Führerbunker?). Sleep trackers suffer from a peculiar version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in which the act of observation affects the phenomenon being observed. They principally record motion to determine whether you are awake; hopeless optimists like me, who will happily lie supine for hours in the hope of ambushing forty winks, end up thrashing around so the device won’t think we’ve dropped off and try to convince us in the morning we went out like a light (the best sleep tracker I tried – or at least the one that produced a set of results that conformed most accurately to my own experience – was Beddit, an unobtrusive adhesive strip that clings to the mattress).
You might think that Dreampad was simply a speaker in a pillow, but according to its makers, it uses trademarked “Intrasound Technology” to vibrate the bones in your inner ear and lull you to sleep. Musical options include “Tranquil Landscapes”, which has a rather ominous undertow. It would be an appropriate soundtrack to someone stumbling across a crumbling, seemingly abandoned country house where one of two
things might happen: a rapturous ascent into a blinding light; or a sudden attack by a cadaverous poltergeist trying to sluice off the unfortunate passer-by’s face.
Either way, it kept me up all night.