Becoming Insomniac: How Sleeplessness Alarmed Modernity by L. Scrivner

By L. Scrivner

A research of the background of recent insomnia, this booklet explores how poets, reporters, and medical professionals of the Victorian interval discovered themselves in near-universal contract that modernity and sleep have been by some means incompatible. It investigates how psychologists, philosophers and literary artists labored to articulate its factors, and its capability therapies.

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Additional resources for Becoming Insomniac: How Sleeplessness Alarmed Modernity

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Insofar as this is the case, and insofar as the condition is often described as, experienced through, and exacerbated by an inward-turning reflective temperament and self-regard, any adequate investigation into the matter must admit a more psychological angle on things. Thus one might be tempted to say, at first at least, that it matters little whether we imagine ourselves to be kept awake by the stirring up of beta waves or an increased circulation of blood. For, no matter our imagined physiology or the kind of physical media that stimulate it, are not all our acts of communication—indeed are not all things we do or experience—contextualized by and seen through our mental states, our attendant ambitions, worries, insecurities, and expectations?

To demonstrate, let us consider an entirely different mental physiology, one arguably more attuned to the Victorian zeitgeist—given that hematological accounts of thinking and of sleep are at least as old as Aristotle. If we linger a bit longer over Franklin Head’s quotation, we discover a now-outmoded, more strictly Victorian way of thinking about thinking. Along with nervous functioning, “intense mental activity” is here conceived of as resulting from, or indeed as being, a kind of work energy: “the nervous and mental force of man” is quantified, “measured against steam and lightning,” evincing a thermodynamic account of our mental physiology.

He tells how a boy was kicked in the head by a horse and rendered “insensible,” only to come to his senses when loose fragments of the skull were removed. ”16 Such experiments were thought to show how sleep might be determined by physical, mechanical processes in nature rather than by the volition of the would-be sleeper. Yet, further scrutiny of the phenomena of sleep and sleeplessness problematized strictly necessitarian or non-teleological conceptions, keeping many otherwise materially minded psychophysiologists from wholly abandoning the idea of a metaphysical will.

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