For the past For several months I fell asleep every night listening to a woman named Teri—or someone like her. I crawl into bed around midnight, open a certain proprietary wellness app on my phone, tap on the “sleep hypnosis” section, and mindlessly select one of the hundreds of titles available. Then I lay my phone face down on my pillow, right next to my head, and focus on the voice in my ear. I often fall asleep before the recording is over. I haven’t slept this well in years.
I have no idea who Teri is. Her biography identifies her as a “Trainer in Hypnotherapy and NLP”. According to a little research, NLP stands for something called Neurolinguistic Programming, a pseudoscientific method of hypnotic instruction somewhere between life coaching and magical thinking. Other nights, I choose Dorothy, a “licensed psychotherapist and meditation teacher,” or Anaïs, a “neuro-mindfulness trainer.” From a scientific perspective, I haven’t found much evidence that these methods have been shown to be effective in treating insomnia. The tracks are cheesy — mostly accompanied by chimes or the gentle patter of rain — and the whispered platitudes sound silly when I hear them in daylight.
I do not care. The app works. These disembodied voices provide a much-needed transition time – from day to night, from speech to silence, from socializing to solitude. And perhaps most importantly, they lull me to sleep out of my technologically saturated existence. The irony is that this transition into sleep is facilitated from my phone. I’m more and more married to him at the very moment when I’m supposed to break away from him to rest. This is perhaps a paradox worthy of the great meditation teachers who tell you that in order to find peace you must let go of the effort to attain it.
Any doctor, anyone website, any random person on the street will tell you that the first line of defense against sleepless nights is to develop a calming nightly routine. In technical jargon this is called “sleep hygiene”. Key rules of sleep hygiene include: strict bedtime and wake-up time schedules; avoiding caffeine, alcohol and eating before bed; and escape all screens at night.
hygiene is a telling word. It is no coincidence that the precursors to these rules were invented in the Victorian era as part of a Puritan response to perceived “unnatural” technological interventions in daily life such as telegraphy, radio and electric lighting, which were blamed for a new “epidemic”. insomnia in the upper class. Over the past century and a half, these sleep-disrupting technologies have been combined into the precious, despised, all-consuming object that fits in the palm of my hand. The object I compulsively check for updates. The object that transmits the voices of my employers and loved ones (and now my hypnotists) to my ears. The object I fumble in my coat pocket as I walk down the street. The reason for this is that I find it almost impossible to persuade myself to turn off at 10pm.
I have slept poorly for as long as I can remember, and for the past few years I have slept extremely poorly. I followed the usual search for solutions: sleep studies, various forms of therapy, dozens of medications. I changed my diet, exercised to the point of exhaustion, and chewed a handful of melatonin gummies. But in my experience, sleep medicine professionals and wellness gurus alike are obsessed with the screen thing, and it’s telling. The message I received is that all of the social, economic and political reasons why I am both exhausted and unable to sleep could be remedied by a personally imposed more rigorous use of the screen. Lock your phone in a box, crowd them. Install an app that shuts down your other apps. Write an autoresponder. set limits. Practice self-control!
To a true insomniac, these tips and tricks may sound like a cruel joke. From the r/insomnia subreddit: “You think normal people need to move their phones to another room, read for 20 minutes, never drink coffee, have a humidifier, listen to quiet music for 20 minutes, take a hot bath, and then no screens.” have.” 8 p.m. just to get some sleep? Fuck sleep hygiene preachers.” Or, “Insomnia. Difficult. Don’t tell me about sleep hygiene, this is an emergency.”
Alongside the often-justified alarmism about the health effects of connectivity, from too much light at night to technical stress, I also find remnants of a deep cultural fear of the natural that dates back to the moral panic of middle-class Victorians. The phone, it is believed, is still an artificial object that forces us to live contrary to our nature—as if there were a pure, unadulterated, tech-free existence to which we could return. If only I could escape the screen’s stranglehold, I was taught to believe that I could find myself again. I could get in touch with my body, I could slow down, I could rest.