Studies show that the Western sleep pattern is unnatural and harmful, but will our ingrained 9-5 culture allow us to accept healthy daily power naps? Hazel Sheffiled grabs 40 winks

The Arndale shopping centre in Manchester is an impractical place to take a nap. Shoppers hurry through its drafty, off-white interior. People stop on curvy benches to eat Greggs pasties. Workers rush back to their desks before the end of their lunch break. No one notices the low throbbing sound emanating from a big black tent right in the middle of the building, opposite Starbucks. Then from the buzzing big top a line of people emerge, yawning: they've just had 15 minutes of top quality sleep.

The Chronarium Sleep Lab landed at the Arndale shopping centre as part of the Manchester Science Festival, an 11-day long event taking in more than 100 installations and activities across the city.

From periscope making to mushroom growing, much of the schedule is dedicated to stimulating people with the wonders of science. This is perhaps the only one designed to to put them to sleep. But it could be the most important.

“Sleep deprivation is a massive future health hazard, ” says Dr Caroline Horton, senior lecturer in cognitive psychology at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. Research shows that people in the UK are sleeping several minutes a night less than they did 10 years ago. Many of us waste time awake in bed, our faces illuminated by blue smartphone light.

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Blue smartphone light can affect sleeping patterns (Jason Lock/Museum of Science and Industry)

The scientific community is yet to build a long-term body of evidence of the consequences, but lack of sleep has been associated with the rise of Alzheimer's, dementia, mental health disorders and slower recovery times from cancer treatments. 

Each day, the waiting list for spaces at the Chronarium fills up quickly. At their allotted time, volunteers gather excitedly at the mouth of the curtained enclosure and remove their shoes. Inside, white slings hang like pupae in a circle, bathed in soothing blue and purple light. There is much squealing as an assistant tries to help people climb inside the fabric, an aerial silk normally used for a kind of gravity-defying yoga.

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The silk cocoons are curtained off from the Arndale (Jason Lock/Museum of Science and Industry)

A voiceover explains how to sit in the sling and stretch the fabric over the feet and head so that everyone is lying with their feet towards the centre of the tent. The voice instructs people to concentrate on the heaviness of their bodies against the soft fabric. As the tent grows dark, silence falls and a low humming starts.

Nothing replaces a good night’s sleep. But scientists say you only need a few minutes of nap time regulate your emotions, allow you to cognitively retain information for longer, to consolidate your memories and improve your ability to concentrate. Companies like Nike, Google and Facebook, hoping to harness better employee productivity, have installed sleep pods in offices.

They defy cultural stigma in countries like the US and the UK, where sleeping on the job as a sign of weakness. “It would be wonderful if people could have a nap at work, but culturally we’re a long way from that, and if it’s just associated with the workplace that’s bad too, ” Dr Horton says. 

Dr Horton's tips for sleep hygiene

1. Identify your ideal bedtime 

2. Switch off the TV and other electronic devices 30 minutes before

3. Try a relaxing activity like reading 

4. Use a dimmer switch

5. Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening

6. Invest in blackout curtains or blinds to block out light

7. Leave your smart phone in another room

The Chronarium was designed for an event in Singapore, where napping is a part of daily life. “We didn’t have people raising their eyebrows and finding the idea to sleep in the day unusual, ” says Mathias Gmachl, co-director of Loop.pH, the design agency behind the idea. Creative producer Carole Keating says her team asked Loop.pH to be a part of the festival to try change attitudes in the UK by demonstrating the importance of sleep in a pleasurable and restorative way.

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Most people fall asleep within minutes (Jason Lock/Museum of Science and Industry)

Together, they picked Arndale as a deliberately counterintuitive location. “We were interested in creating an experience that is social but about wellbeing and looking after yourself, to contrast social activities like shopping and drinking that aren’t necessarily good for you, ” Mathias says.

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Society should not regard a power nap as a sign of weakness (Jason Lock/Museum of Science and Industry)

Rather than using technology to simply mirror the low electromagnetic frequencies of the brain during sleep, Loop.pH commissioned Anna Meredith, a classically-trained electronic artist, to compose a beguiling mixture of alien-like throbbing and gentle electronic sounds that help the brain slow down. As the music plays, the purple and blue lights lull the body into believing it’s night time, even though the noise of the shopping centre can still be heard outside the curtained walls.

At first, bodies fidget in the slings, sending small vibrations through the structure. But as the time advances a stillness descends as people fall asleep.

A few minutes later, the meditative voice coaxes everyone back to consciousness and people emerge, stretching from their cocoons to continue with the day. Some report feeling calmer and more energised as they leave the tent.

While we might be some way off sleep pods in the bedroom, Dr Horton says we need to cosy up to nap time to stop us sleep-walking into a major public health hazard.

"People need to accept that napping in the day is not a sign of weakness, ” she says. So next time you’re feeling sleepy, go for a guilt-free nap. Science says it’s good for you. 

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