Visit the Reimagining Sleep Online Exhibition

We’re delighted to announce that the Reimagining Sleep exhibition is now live: you can view it here.

This exhibition, curated by Chiara Dellerba and co-produced with participants at our creative workshop series last Spring, is the culmination of the Understanding and Reimagining Sleep and Its Disorders project, run in partnership with The Sleep Charity.

Each exhibition page features a toolkit, which you can use to explore your relationship with sleep through creative exercises. You’re invited to contribute to the exhibition by uploading your responses to the toolkits’ prompts on the website (there’s a form on each exhibition page).

Enjoy viewing and contributing to the exhibition and let us know what you think!

New publication out now in Textual Practice

‘How do you sleep at night knowing all this?’: climate breakdown, sleep, and extractive capitalism in contemporary literature and culture

This peer-reviewed journal article by Dr Diletta De Cristofaro has just been published open access in the journal Textual Practice. Here’s the abstract:

Contributing to the emerging field of critical sleep studies, and developing an intervention situated at the intersection of the environmental and the medical humanities, this article considers a range of contemporary texts: Jenny Offill’s realist novel Weather (2020), Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation (2014), Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017) and Hunting by Stars (2021) – three examples of the ‘sleep-apocalypse’ genre – Finegan Kruckemeyer’s play Hibernation (2021), and the Perfect Sleep app by Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne (2021). I show how these texts do not just simply reflect the negative effects that climate change has on sleep health, which are manifold, as scientific research evidences. Rather, cultural production arguably draws attention to structural parallels between the climate crisis and the so-called sleep crisis, namely, contemporary society’s presumed widespread sleep deprivation and rise in sleep disorders. Both crises are the product of a capitalist system geared towards continuous extraction – and exhaustion – of resources, from the Earth and human bodies. Thus, in the texts considered, sleep is explored, on the one hand, as a casualty of the climate crisis and, on the other hand, as something whose value we need to reassess as part of our ongoing work to avert climate collapse.

Launch of the Reimagining Sleep Exhibition at Being Human Festival

We’re delighted to be launching the Reimagining Sleep online exhibition as part of Being Human Festival on 18th November, 2-4pm, in Newcastle

Join us for a creative guided tour of the exhibition where you’ll have the chance to contribute to it! Free and open to all.

Playing with materials and content from the exhibition, we will discuss the artistic strategies behind it and sleep research. We’ll then explore how our bodies and minds react to sounds and, through creative writing and mark-making activities, we’ll develop together visual responses to meditative soundscapes. If you’d like, your response will then be uploaded to the exhibition, enriching its collaborative nature and the plurality of voices represented.

The event is free but booking is required. Join us at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle by reserving your ticket below.

This event is the culmination of Understanding and Reimagining Sleep and Its Disorders, a public engagement project led by Dr Diletta Cristofaro and funded by the Wellcome Trust (Research Enrichment – Public Engagement grant). Hosted by Northumbria University and run in partnership with The Sleep Charity, the project consists in a workshop series, an online exhibition curated by artist and creative producer Chiara Dellerba, and resources.

Being Human Festival, the UK’s national festival of the humanities, takes place 9–18 November 2023. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, with generous support from Research England, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. For further information please see

Keynote at Somnambulations

Dr Diletta De Cristofaro will be giving a keynote at “Somnambulations 2: Critical Approaches to Sleep” in Montreal (26-27 June). The conference is part of The Sociability of Sleep Research-Creation Project. Diletta will be talking about “The Cultural Meanings of Insomnia”.

Here’s a brief abstract:

In many analyses, the age of globalization is also the age of a sleep crisis—or societal insomnia—largely attributed to the 24/7 society. Through the exploration of a range of texts—memoirs, fictions, self-help manuals, art installations, and TV series—this talk explores the cultural meanings of insomnia in the age of globalization and, in so doing, why this period is also widely believed to be the age of societal insomnia. In the talk, insomnia will emerge as a site where contradictory social imperatives that articulate sleep as, at once, a waste of time and essential to wellbeing merge with a range of individual and collective anxieties about life in the 24/7 globalized world, from concerns about precarity and the nature of work to concerns about new technologies and the environment. 

New peer-reviewed article on sleep-tracking

The project’s new article, “Quantified Sleep: Self-Tracking Technologies and the Reshaping of 21st-Century Subjectivity”, co-authored by Dr Diletta De Cristofaro and Prof Simona Chiodo, is now available as part of a special issue of Historical Social Research devoted to “Sleep, Knowledge, and Technology: Studies of the Sleep Lab, Sleep Tracking and Beyond“. The special issue is edited by Hannah Ahlheim, Dariuš Zifonun and Nicole Zillien.

In this article, Diletta and Simona situate the rise of everyday sleep-tracking practices within the sleep crisis discourse and explore these practices’ reshaping of 21st-century subjectivity.

Sleep and Ageing: reflections on the Reimagining Sleep online workshop

A blog post by Dr James Rákóczi, Research Assistant

On Wednesday 19th April 2023, the Understanding and Reimagining Sleep and Its Disorders project hosted its final online workshop in its programme of public engagement events for people experiencing difficulties with sleep associated with ageing, parenting, and/or the menopause.

The workshop was hosted by Project Lead, cultural theorist Dr Diletta De Cristofaro, and Dr Greg Elder, a sleep researcher at Northumbria University. Greg Elder’s research interests are focused on sleep disturbances in neurodegenerative dementia, as well as in healthy ageing more generally, and the workshop was an opportunity for participants to discuss sleep in relation to events and experiences associated with getting older.

Diletta De Cristofaro began the workshop by sharing an excerpt from Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark, a 2008 dystopian novel about an ageing journalist who is reflecting on a second civil war unfolding in present-day USA. The journalist describes his insomnia:

I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia. […] That’s what I do when sleep refuses to come. I lie in bed and tell myself stories. They might not add up to much, but as long as I’m inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget. Concentration can be a problem, however, and more often than not my mind eventually drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about. There’s nothing to be done.

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (2008)

Diletta initially invited workshop participants to share their impressions of the passage itself. I was struck by how the excerpt instead instituted a space for participants to offer their own experiences in turn – of sleeping or, at least, of lying in bed trying to sleep.

Many participants used this time to reflect on the tools they had developed to cope with sleep difficulties. Some of these will be familiar to readers: Epsom salts, lavender, camomile tea, writing problems down, thinking of nice things. Others disclosed a movingly complex relationship to sleep management itself, how sleep difficulties commingled with other illnesses, or with other challenging life events. A picture began to emerge about how many of us operate with ambivalent sets of understandings about the role that sleep plays in relation to falling ill, healing, major life transitions, and ageing.

Next, Greg Elder delivered a short talk on sleep and ageing. The principal aim of his talk was to emphasise both the complexity of sleep and underscore the persistent uncertainty at the heart of sleep science research: we still do not know why sleep occurs. What we do know is that sleep is entangled with our physical and mental health, that everyone needs to sleep, and that humans will spend about one-third of our lives asleep.

Greg guided us through various tools available to scientists for measuring sleep. There are subjective methods, requiring sleepers to self-report, such as the use of questionnaires, sleep diaries, or self-reported sleep duration and quality measures.

There are also objective methods such as actigraphy, small devices with accelerometers to measure bodily movement, or more comprehensive forms of polysomnography, which will usually require a sleep patient to come to a sleep lab for overnight monitoring. Participants were pointed towards the wide potential range of recommended sleep duration. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that an older adult (65+) should have 7-8 hours sleep a night but that anything from 5 to 9 hours ‘may be appropriate’.

A picture from the companion creative workshop on Sleep and Ageing, led by artist Chiara Dellerba. The workshop focused on sounds.

At this point, a participant asked whether anyone else had heard of the theory that before the rise of industrial labour, patterns of sleep in human beings were divided into two phases of sleep rather than just one (the theory was first proposed, to my knowledge, by historian Roger Ekirch). Greg replied that what such theories demonstrated was the shifting role of sleep over time, both historical time as well as time over an individual’s lifespan. A conversation then followed which explored the ways that sleep and “being horizontal” figured in personal understandings of life, energy, and even health at the cellular level.

This cued up the second half of Greg’s talk, which considered the extent to which recent scientific research is discovering how life events have big effects on individual sleep. He talked us through a 2018 study which indicated that retirement is associated with a decrease in sleep difficulties. As a question prompt for final discussions, participants were asked: has your sleep experience changed in response to any particular events?

In thought-provoking testimony, participants described their own encounters between sleep and health in ageing. For some, sleep could be described in almost spiritual terms, as a liminality, a place where science and magic meet. For others, sleep disclosed the complex relationship we have with listening and responding to our own body – how entangled sleep is with comorbidities and life tragedies in both cause and effect. Greg responded to these conversations by stating how they emphasised for him the need for scientists to investigate more closely the secondary effects of sleep difficulties.

A core goal of all our workshops is to facilitate knowledge-sharing around sleep. The conversations that closed this final workshop testified to the importance of such facilitation work. There was a consensus – drawn from both experience and scientific knowledge – that awareness about sleep needs to be more firmly embedded into clinical practice, both in general practice and specialism. Lived experiences of sleep and ageing should not only inform health policy but co-produce and drive the health research which will improve sleep quality and understanding for all.

Understanding and Reimagining Sleep and Its Disorders is a public engagement project led by Dr Diletta Cristofaro and funded by the Wellcome Trust (Research Enrichment – Public Engagement grant). Hosted by Northumbria University and run in partnership with The Sleep Charity, the project consists in a workshop series, an online art exhibition, and resources.

Video about the Reimagining Sleep workshops

The first phase of the Reimagining Sleep project – a creative workshop series – is now completed. Find out more about the workshops by watching the video below and stay tuned for the project’s second phase, an art exhibition of works co-produced by workshop participants and artist Chiara Dellerba!

Video by North News

Understanding and Reimagining Sleep and Its Disorders is a public engagement project led by Dr Diletta Cristofaro and funded by the Wellcome Trust (Research Enrichment – Public Engagement grant). Hosted by Northumbria University and run in partnership with The Sleep Charity, the project consists in a workshop series, an online art exhibition, and resources.

Sleep and the Menopause: reflections on the Reimagining Sleep online workshop

A blog post by Dr James Rákóczi, Research Assistant

On Friday 3rd March 2023, the Understanding and Reimagining Sleep and Its Disorders project held an online workshop for people experiencing difficulties with sleep associated with the menopause. The workshop was hosted by Project Lead, cultural theorist Dr Diletta De Cristofaro, and Professor in Psychology Jason Ellis, Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research.

Issues with sleep are amongst the most commonly recorded symptoms of menopausal transition, reported in up to 45% of perimenopausal and 60% of post-menopausal stages. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Perhaps most well-known are the shifts in hormonal activity associated with the menopause, such as decreases in oestrogen and progesterone levels, but there are also significant shifts in serotonin and dopamine levels at play in the dynamics of bodily change. The upshot of this can be devastating: a range of sleep-affecting symptoms such as hot flushes at night, mood disorders and anxiety, sleep disordered breathing, and therefore sharp increases in the likelihood of insomnia.

The tone of the workshop was informal. Participants were invited to engage in whichever ways they felt comfortable – asking questions in the chat or voicing them through microphones. Cameras could be turned off or on. Technical difficulties meant we were a little late in starting, slightly thrown by an ill-timed software update, but everyone attending nevertheless stayed until the end. Diletta De Cristofaro greeted us with a warm-up exercise where we voted for which animal we most associated with when waking in the morning. (Yawning monkey won, whilst restful bear received no votes.) Then, she invited participants to engage with a passage from Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, a memoir about the author’s sleep difficulties:

When I think of insomnia’s wayward rhythms what I picture is this: gaudy insomnia with its wide lapels and toothy grin is the last groover on the dance floor, still going at it after everyone else has collapsed in a heap or gone home. […] Bleary-eyed, your body leaden, you hanker for nothing more than to sleep, and yet you must endure this thing—this coked-up arriviste!—who on top of everything else (the clowning, the nagging insistence, the manic glare) has no freaking beats.

Neither do I, as it happens. In menopause I have grown accustomed to having no rhythms to speak of, neither hormonal nor lunar, and certainly not circadian.

Marina Benjamin, Insomnia (2018)

Though not everyone related with this description as representative of their own experience, participants were interested by how Benjamin both personifies insomnia as a rebellious figure and draws the disruptions of menopausal and circadian rhythm together. It was suggested that her description of ‘wayward rhythms’ could stand in for a broader sense of incapacity, of not being able to function, experienced by many during the menopause.

After this, Jason Ellis presented his talk ‘Managing Sleep During Menopause’, outlining a range of treatment and management options. He discussed three pharmacological possibilities: hormone replacement therapy, the use of SSRIs (more typically used as antidepressants), and hypnotic drugs used to directly induce sleep. He also talked us through the evidence bases connected with the consumption of phytoestrogen in food, as well as with yoga, acupuncture, and cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I).

Next, Jason talked us through a range of self-management strategies for disordered sleeping (which, since the 1970s, has been commonly described in sleep science as ‘Sleep Hygiene’). These included when to avoid spicy foods, how to reduce nocturia, recommending warm baths and stretching exercises about two hours before bed, offering tips for ‘sweat management’, endorsing natural fibre bedding and pyjamas, and keeping the bedroom cooler than normal.

The conversations that surrounded and followed this presentation were thoughtful and probing. We discussed dreams and lucid dreaming, delta waves and pink noise, and whether the “problem” of screens in bed was an overhyped factor of sleep deficit.

A repeated assertion amongst participants was that, sometimes, the sleep difficulties manifesting during menopause actively subvert the possibility for self-management. The experience of waking up very suddenly, without apparent cause, was one key example. Waking up suddenly bears a relation to cortisol (a steroid hormone active when the body wakes up but which can surge at the “wrong time”) as well as to the feeling of being engulfed with anxious thoughts at 3am. Such anxious thoughts are hard to manage because they feel so separate from wakefulness. Jason suggested using distraction techniques – such as counting down from 1000 by 7 – to deal with this, though he noted an alternate theory that advocates for overloading the brain emotionally (for example, through journaling).

The purpose of this workshop was not to be “therapeutic” nor to dictate ways of improving sleep. Instead, it was to acknowledge such ambivalences. We wanted to lay the groundwork for a further workshop held later in March, led by artist Chiara Dellerba, where participants were given space to build from these conversations and engage creatively with sleep practices and living with the menopause and the menopausal transition.

A picture of the creative workshop. Design and pictures in this post all by Chiara Dellerba.

Chiara led participants through a sensory reflection on the properties of plants – in particular, ashwagandha, valerian, and passion flower – to ease menopausal symptoms. The results of this creative workshop, co-produced by participants with Chiara, will be exhibited later this year. Stay tuned for updates!

Understanding and Reimagining Sleep and Its Disorders is a public engagement project led by Dr Diletta Cristofaro and funded by the Wellcome Trust (Research Enrichment – Public Engagement grant). Hosted by Northumbria University and run in partnership with The Sleep Charity, the project consists in a workshop series, an online art exhibition, and resources.