Interview with Thea Herold: Schlafakademie Berlin
Thea Herold works as an author and sleep researcher in Berlin. Together with the psychologist, Sandra Zimmermann, she founded the network of experts, Schlafakademie Berlin, in 2011. She is a member of the German Sleep Society (DGSM) and the International Association of Art Critics and for over twenty years has been involved in looking at chronobiological issues in an interdisciplinary context. She co-wrote the book “Der Schlafquotient” [The Sleep Quotient] with Ingo Fietze which was published by Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg in 2006. The following interview supplements the article “Schlaf Bedürfnisse Wecken – Good Night?” in form 271.
How has the relevance of the subject of sleep changed in recent years?
It hasn’t – if you mean the relevance of sleep. As banal as it might sound, people in the 21st century need to spend considerable periods of their lives asleep, just as previous generations did. Night after night. And if we have to plan on being asleep for a third of our lifespan, then it should be considered very relevant.
Or if your question is angled at the increasing presence of media – then, yes! “Sleep” often hits the headlines. Unfortunately, most of these are negative and cause alarm. This is rarely a good thing for healthy sleep.
Do we only sleep at night? What can sleeping during the day do? Is it considered to be inadvisable?
The best time to sleep is, as it always has been, at night. Our biological rhythms and the sleep-wake cycle that over twenty-four hours makes us sleepy in the evening and makes us sleep at night, ensure that we are alert and refreshed for the new day.
However, we often experience a decrease in performance. It occurs quite regularly and throughout the day. We can benefit from a little nap to combat afternoon sleepiness, known as semi-circadian rhythms. And many of us take advantage of a little shut-eye at weekends, on days off and when on holiday.
But attitudes towards sleeping in the day and sleeping in public are still very ambivalent in Germany. But shift work and living in a 24-hour-seven-day-a-week society that never sleeps often leaves no other option. If you are awake at night, you simply must sleep during the day.
How could design, above all in the shape of artefacts and objects, help us to sleep better?
That’s difficult. Somehow we all know that sleep is one of the greatest treasures in life, a reservoir for our health, a source for creativity... but we cannot see it. That’s why we often only start to take sleep seriously when we are deprived of it. It continues to puzzle me even today, why, according to the statistics, Germans spend 1.7 billion euros on mattresses, but then manage to miss what they can “design” for themselves. More mindfulness, security, and simply allowing themselves to believe that we sleep not only because we have to, but because we want to and should!
How do you mean?
We all have different ways of sleeping and very different sleep habits. We also have to learn to discover what is personally good for our sleep, what helps in sleep-sensitive times, what works when we sleep next to others – every aspect. In other words, discover what chronotype we are.
And the spirit of the time also plays a role in this. So, just as in fashion, some things are one minute the latest cool thing in the bed and mattress market, and then they’re not. And that’s why the current situation in the bed and mattress market is far from suiting everyone.
For a long time, sought-after labels in beds alone have not increased the quality of sleep. Unfortunately, I have come across the opposite effect from my work in practice; observations such as: “I have now spent so much money on the best mattress, the most expensive bed, the most wonderful sleepwear, but sleep is still evasive, not as I hoped...”
What would you like designers to do?
Good design has been improving current developments since way back. I would like designers to help us more by having public spaces for rest and relaxation! By this, I don’t mean these “sleep boxes”, these smart pods in airports and shopping malls. They are more usually used as a mobile office than somewhere to sleep off jet lag.
The fact that we have to sleep when we are tired is a fairly indisputable fact. We often see people succumbing to sleep in the train, the plane, on park benches, sometimes in public libraries and museums. This is certainly the best evidence that we don’t need an IT bed, or an interoperable high-tech place with smart interfaces in order to sleep normally.... but there will be furniture of the future that supports sleep in our urban resting spaces. I’m convinced of this.
How do you evaluate the current discussion about sleep? Which developments do you think are positive and which are problematic?
For a start, the current “sleep debates” often focus far too much on numbers. How long, how badly do we sleep, how disturbed is our sleep? We are only just beginning to talk about the changing ideals of relaxing, sleep, and taking a break. But modern sleep research has never been a “quantity over quality” affair. It has been an interdisciplinary and scientific subject right from the outset.
However, the subject of sleep is beginning to play an increasingly important part in the everyday digital world, too. We play at becoming experts on our own sleep, and we think we know about it because it is becoming more “measurable”. But just ask new parents if this helps in the first months after their new arrival has joined the family.
I don’t know if we should constantly try to “analyse” our sleep with the help of sleep apps on high-tech beds or with smart pyjamas. Will we boost our personal sleep quotient in this way? Very questionable. At the end of the night, the most delicious thing about sleep is not the fabulous bed we have bought, but the time we make to actually indulge in sleeping. For all the knowledge that we have about it, sleep is, and remains, one of nature’s best-kept secrets.