When I lived in Mumbai I was in a book club, and one of the group was our school’s nurse. She recommended we read the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Even though I left the school, I decided I’d read the book anyway and I’m glad I did – it was fascinating. In particular I was interested in the research around how technology impacts sleep. All too often I’ve heard parents and colleagues complain that technology in the bedrooms is robbing us of our sleep – and in fact I’ve always told parents to keep students’ devices out of their children’s bedrooms at night. There’s plenty of evidence about the harmful effects of LED-emitting devices – however, as Matthew Walker points out, there’s no putting the technological genie back into the bottle, so what we need to do is find ways to use technology to our advantage.
One such use of technology might be to track our sleep and circadian rhythms. Walker argues that when we can do this accurately we can also use technology to monitor our networked devices such as thermostats and lighting to give us the optimal conditions for sleep. We could even programme in a natural lull and rise in temperature across the night that is in harmony with our body’s rhythm.
A second interesting use of technology could be to use it with our electric lights. Many of us are overexposed to blue-dominant LED light in the evening, which suppresses melatonin and delays our feelings of sleepiness. Walker argues that we could soon be at the point where we can engineer LED bulbs with filters that can vary the wavelength of light they emit – enabling us to use warm yellow colours in the evening, which are less harmful to the body’s melatonin production. These bulbs could be paired with individuals’ sleep trackers so that over the course of an evening they could gradually lessen the blue light in the home as the evening progresses, or even as someone moves from room to room. In the morning the opposite can happen – with blue light being emitted to shut off the melatonin and help us to wake up faster and more alert. The idea is that this technology could also be useful in helping to overcome jetlag, for example, and even to help in cars by emitting blue light during the morning commute, since the highest drowsy-driving accidents occur in the early mornings.
Like everything, technology has its opportunities and challenges. The impact of technology on sleep has been well documented – perhaps now it’s time for us to take back the control to ensure that technology can be proactively used for good.