Somnambulations 2: Critical Approaches to Sleep 

In the third of our Sociability of Sleep series, contributors reflect on the instrumentalisation, quantification, and visualisation of sleep.

Somnambulations 2 took place in person in an auditorium adjacent to the InSomnolence exhibition. We invited junior scholars from various disciplines to Montreal to come together in a way they seldom do, and we practiced speaking across and between our fields of knowledge We discussed the premises of our own habits of research and the usually implicit aspects of our (disciplinary) methods and frameworks which, in this context, merited to be articulated and questioned. Participants were brought together by a critical approach that looked beyond the instrumentalisation of sleep (such as the popular discourse around optimising sleep for productivity) and instead, turned to opening up the possibilities of sleep and sleep research.

What follows are reflections on our two days of presentations, which can also serve as directions for innovative approaches to grow and expand a multi- and interdisciplinary critical sleep studies. They are organised around the themes of the panels, which sought to bring out some key through-lines in sleep research.

Five Themes for Sleep at Somnambulations 2

1:  Sleep by the Numbers

In a recent discussion on the social determinants of sleep, psychologist Michael Grandner highlighted that although we cannot “buy” sleep (yet), we can invest in protecting the sleep we do have (see the HMS DSM Special Sleep Grand Rounds). Personal sleep trackers, also known as wearables, represent such an investment for some.

“Sleep by the Numbers,” the symposium’s opening panel, explored the relationship between qualitative and quantified sleep while dissecting our collective obsession with digital health.

Wearables touch upon a vital aspect of autonomy since they can motivate us to take tangible, self-affirming actions based on seemingly accurate information. But in her autoethnographic account titled “The Sleep Data Looks Way Better Than I Feel,” educator Anna Nolda Nagele (Queen Mary University of London) was interested in the misalignment between perceived and recorded sleep. It brought paradoxical insomnia to mind (paradoxical insomnia is characterized by the realization that objective findings do not corroborate one’s report of sleeplessness). Wearables have transposed this contradiction from the clinical world of the lab to the intimate confines of the bedroom.

According to anthropologist Alexandru Dincovici (New Europe College, Bucharest), as wearables become more affordable and as the percentage of adults using them continues to increase, there is hope that the algorithmic definition of restorative sleep shifts from being heavily chrono-normative (i.e., ascribing to a standard of eight consecutive hours of nightly sleep) to becoming representative of a more comprehensive array of legitimate sleep experiences.

In “The Ethics and Business of Algorithmic Sleep: Wearables as Personal Sleep Assistants,” Dincovici drew from philosopher Drew Leder’s notion of the “absent body” to demonstrate how wearables can reveal phenomena that would otherwise remain unnoticed. For example, the Oura ring, a smart ring that tracks sleep and physical activity, promises to tell us how our bodies feel “every second of every day (…) sometimes [sensing that we might be getting sick] even before [we] know it.”

Researcher Éloïse Vo (Haute école d’art et de design, Geneva, and École Polytechnique de Lausanne) further investigated this problematization of the asymptomatic through the performative reading of her research-creation project “Grèves perlées” [translation: a strike or lock-out; evocative of the constant succession of work and rest, with an emphasis on slowing down to gain leverage]. Captured by her webcam, her blinking eyes controlled the rhythm of sounds and images. By bringing the semi-autonomic function of blinking to the forefront of our consciousness, Vo was upsetting the quiet workings of the “absent body.” Just like Dincovici’s interviewees, who used to wake up in the middle of the night to check on their wearables to see whether they were “sleeping right,” we suddenly grew concerned about how hard we had blinked, for how long, and how often.

Nagele, Dincovici, and Vo agreed on the role of wearables as mediating social agents and, ultimately, as revealers of how we tend to rely on statistical averages to construct our idea of what is “normal.” We are all inevitably bound to experience sleep disruptions and unproductive moments, and we should remember that sleep and sleeplessness are greater than the sum of their parts.

Josianne Barrette-Moran

2: Sleeper States

Sleep and wakefulness are often regarded as two antithetical states of consciousness. Their mutual intermingling is thus largely considered as an unwanted, potentially pathological occurrence indicative of a sleep-related disorder (such as sleep paralysis) that needs to be regulated and controlled. Each of the three talks in the “Sleeper States” panel challenged this illusory binary of sleep and wakefulness, and instead foregrounded the complex, dynamic, and mutually co-constitutive relations between sleep and waking states.

Nelly Matorina, a cognitive neuroscience researcher and visual artist, discussed her 2-channel video installation “Circaceptan” (2019). One screen featured a video made up of footage of people sleeping, while the other screen showed the same footage but randomly recomposed by the DeepDream computer vision algorithm (an algorithm that detects visual patterns). The work is installed as two parallel video streams that are projected onto facing walls, becoming vivid depictions of dreams that accidentally re-emerge in our waking life and fragments of our waking life that reappear in our dreams. Through this juxtaposition and associative exploration, the makes apparent how the states of waking and dreaming permeate each other.

Emre Sünter uses the phenomena of sleep and wake as metaphors for the conscious self. Turning to the nineteenth-century French sociologist and psychologist Gabriel Tarde’s conception of everyday social acts as a form of sleepwalking, he presented sleep in terms of dynamic relations between wakefulness, socially acquired beliefs and involuntary habits, unconscious desires, and the non-linear temporality of dreams. In Tarde’s concept, which frames sleep as a social act, the figure of the sleepwalker loses its pathological connotation. Instead, it becomes a conceptual tool for examining the ongoing process through which socio-cultural forces reveal and mask us to ourselves, and continually reshape the inevitably porous boundaries between sleep and wakefulness, rationality and irrationality, volition and reflex.

The last presentation, by artist Leo Morales Vega (Nour Chahine) and designer Anastasia Statsenko, further challenged sleep-wake as a categorical binary. Their starting point was “Fleeting Formation,” an immersive multimedia installation they produced that engages with current neuroscientific research on the sleeping brain, and addresses recent findings on the role of sleeping and dreaming in the consolidation of memory. Building on this research, the artists devised an immersive environment consisting of projected interactive visuals, sound, and haptic, interactive 3D objects that invited each visitor to intuitively explore a symbolically exteriorised dream space. Through this work Morales Vega (Chahine) and Statsenko argued that “sleeping and dreaming is alive time” constituting “a key component to our construction of self.” This is the case even with dreamless sleep, which remains inaccessible to our consciousness. In acknowledging the important activity taking place in sleep, it becomes all the more difficult to situate it as a direct opposite of being wake.

Paula Muhr

3: Dreaming the Night

Can the disruption of sleep create specific kinds of knowledge? How does it shape the ways of thinking with and about sleep itself? Can hypersomnias (conditions of extreme daytime sleepiness) and parasomnias (sleep disruptions caused by abnormal activities, such as sleepwalking or sleep paralysis) present not only alternate aways of being, but also novel modes of thinking? If so, can dreams be considered the mediators of information that come from the night?

A surprising thread emerged from the papers in this panel. Presentations by Emma Dollery and Ariel Pickett, Annabelle Lacroix, and Sophie Smith considered how disruptions that happen in and around sleep could be refigured as full of potential. Dollery and Pickett discussed a security guard who kept intruding on their late-night experiments, while Lacroix posits insomnia itself as an intruder of sleep. But rather than seeing these events as merely frustrating or problematic, they argue for the opportunities that disruptions present, such as new forms of knowledge and community that can emerge only from dwelling in the night.

Smith meanwhile challenged straightforward scientific accounts of sleep with eco-cultural infiltrations. Sleep, she suggests, is not just a temporal event, but a spatial one too. What if we entered into sleep like a worm that burrows into the earth, creating within it rooms and tunnels, moving sleep around like dirt beneath the surface of the ground? In the light (and dark) of these threads, what might the disruptions of sleep give us, besides just more bad sleep? 

Sandra Huber

4: Visual Worlds of Sleeplessness

This panel on ‘The Visual Worlds of Sleeplessness’ explored the absence of sleep through a visual lens. In the first presentation, Mariève Cyr (McGill University) and Despina Z. Artenie (Université du Québec à Montréal) shared the results of a study they conducted that evaluated the impact of evening light exposure on the performance of night workers. Anchored in a quantitative research design, they observed that night workers who had been exposed to evening light made significantly fewer errors than the control group. An important aspect of their research design was allowing the participants to assess their own perceived level of fatigue using a questionnaire, rather than simply using an ‘objective’ physical measurement (e.g. cortisol levels). Perceived fatigue was considered important since the objectives of the study included potential clinical applications such as improving the well-being and sleep difficulties of workers, as well as the number of errors they committed at work. In this context, what mattered was largely how workers felt while doing their work.

Amélie Barbier (École Pratique des Hautes Études) continued the theme of night work and transported us to the world of nurses working overnight in a sleep laboratory. Having conducted ethnographic work on the sleep lab, Barbier aimed to lift a veil on this space, its practices, its people, and a paradoxical situation in which the nurses are sacrificing their own sleep to ensure that their patients can sleep well. She conducted interviews with the nurses to better understand how they managed to navigate the night and stay awake—“working at night means speaking in a foreign language” one nurse says. Barbier also documented the night nurse shift through in situ photographs. The nurse’s activities, Barbier told us, revolve around the video-polysomnogram, which they monitor all night. This is a live video recording of each sleeper in the lab, combined with their polysomnographic data (physiological data during sleep). With each nurse overseeing a number of sleepers on their individual computer screens, the video-polysomnographs become more than tools to monitor sleep quality, but also centrepieces of these sleep caretakers’ long night watch.

Paula Muhr (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) concluded the panel with a discussion on the sleep deprived brain as seen through the technologies of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Offering a critical analysis of recent literature, she invited us to question how these images contribute to neuroscientific discourse on the subject. What are their knowledge-producing functions? Through this, Muhr contributed to the underlying argument of the panel: that focusing on the visual register (including light, screens, images, or visualisations) is an invaluable methodology for understanding the physiological and cultural dimensions of sleep.

—Marie-Maude Roy

5: Sleep Fictions

The “Sleep Fictions” panel invited us to explore the “sociability of sleep” through, or perhaps more accurately, with literary texts. In each case, the presenters encouraged us to question not pre-existing realities that might be represented in fiction, but what fiction can bring into existence, what it renders possible, reminding us that “expression precedes content and draws it along” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986). By considering how sleep related to fixed social or temporal norms and structures, these talks questioned what constitutes the boundaries of sleep experience, all the while opening up the terrain of sleep research.

Visual artist Matthew-Robin Nye (Concordia University) presented a project based on the children’s story Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (1947). This story, depicting two rabbits bidding goodnight to every object in their room before falling asleep, served as a launching pad for Nye creation of a solo traveling exhibition in which he reproduced the rabbit’s bedroom. Associated with modern children’s literature, Goodnight Moon breaks the codes of traditional fairy tales by not offering any moral lessons. The relentless repetition of the phrase “goodnight,” the rhythm it induces, and the spaces of freedom it opens, he argues, make it a “prototypical queerness” that goes against all norms and blurs the boundaries of subjectivity.

Aaron Scott Pugh (University of Kent) explored sleep by putting it in conversation with his experience of depression and the thoughts and writings of Virginia Woolf. The Waves (1931), the novel on which Pugh’s centres his attention, relies on the intricate articulation of the interior monologues of six childhood friends. Both in what it evokes (emotions, dreams, mourning) and in its narrative structure, this experimental work presents itself as a space of resistance against the rhythms of the modern world and the patriarchal structures of thought. Ultimately, Pugh argues that it is the edge of sleep and dream, as liminal state of consciousness, that allows Woolf to delve deeply into the human psyche.

To end the panel, Nived Dharmaraj (McGill University) focused on Gianrico Carofiglio’s novel Three O’Clock in the Morning. In contrast to biomedical discourses and normative health prescriptions that expose the risks and detrimental consequences of sleep deprivation (something which has already been widely conveyed), the Italian author examines the possibilities of such an extreme lack of sleep. A forced 48-hour vigil leads a tense father and his teenage son through the streets of Marseille, a suspended time during which they fight against falling asleep together. Over the passing hours, the protagonists form bonds that would not have otherwise come into existence. A relationship is thus strengthened in the shared misery of sleeplessness, serving as an example of the potential of exceptional sleep.

—Karine Bellerive

About the authors

Karine Bellerive is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Canada Research Chair in Urban Heritage at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She has a Ph.D. in Communication from the Université de Montréal (2022), and has been a Lecturer at the University of Sherbrooke since 2008. Her research works across media studies, cultural studies, literary studies, critical studies of aging, feminist and gender studies, as well as urban studies, specifically of post-industrial urban heritage sites.

Marie-Maude Roy is a SSHRC and FRQSC-funded PhD student in social psychology with the Canada Research Chair in Developmental Sexology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She is interested in the social visual representations of individuals from diverse sexual and relational trajectories. She has a BSc in Physics, an individualized MA in Physics and Communication, and a MSc in Psychology, all from the Université de Montréal.

Paula Muhr is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute for History of Art and Architecture, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and a visual artist. She studied visual arts, art history, theory of literature, and physics before receiving her PhD in Visual Studies at the Humboldt University Berlin. Her research is at the intersection of visual studies, image theory, media studies, science and technology studies (STS), and history and philosophy of science. She focuses on examining knowledge-producing functions of new imaging and visualisation technologies in the natural sciences.

Sandra Huber holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities from Concordia University (2022), where she is currently Assistant Professor (LTA) and Area Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Studies and Practices in Fine Arts. She works across English and Media Studies, Anthropology, and Fine Arts to look at communication with spirits and uncanny kin within contemporary, historical, and fabulated witchcrafts. Her approach questions the secretive or the occulted through embodied research.

Josianne Barrette-Moran is a PhD candidate in bioethics (Université de Montréal) and a medical ethics facilitator (McGill University). Her interests lie in the social implications of delayed sleep-wake phase disorder.


Deleuze, G., Guattari Félix, and Bensmaïa Réda. 1986. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana B. Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.41.

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