Dr Katharine Craik

Reader in Early Modern Literature and Research Lead for English and Modern Languages, Oxford Brookes University

How well did you sleep last night? Researchers at Oxford Brookes, including myself, are currently working on a pioneering project on the art and science surrounding insomnia.

Over the last two years, I have been leading the Watching project which brings together a stellar team of artists, historians, scientists and musicians to explore how and why we sleep - and whether our slumber has changed over the course of the last four hundred years.

Supported by an Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust, the project aims to improve public understanding of the importance of good sleep, particularly amongst schoolchildren.

Healthy sleep is closely connected to good memory and improved educational outcomes.

But fewer and fewer children are achieving the recommended amount of sleep due to changes in the working, eating and bedtime patterns of families, earlier school start times, and the use of electronic devices in children’s bedrooms.

To spark new interest in these questions, we have been exploring seventeenth-century beliefs and superstitions about sleep, as well as historical treatments for insomnia or "watching".

Sleep science was advancing rapidly in the 17th century when sleep was regarded – then as now – as one of the core factors for maintaining good health, and for achieving a fulfilled life.

Four hundred years ago, doctors already knew how profoundly a poor night’s sleep could affect the mind and body.

Many insomniacs relied on homespun remedies: lettuce to make into a supper time broth, or violets and roses to blend into a comforting cordial.

More hardy insomniacs would have known that prunes were an effective after-dinner laxative capable of thoroughly cleansing the body in preparation for a good night’s rest.

Less conventional remedies included attaching small bags of aniseed to the nostrils, or tying slices of bread steeped in vinegar to the soles of the feet.

Some doctors recommended sleeping barefoot so that the night-time release of the body’s ‘hurtful vapours’ would not be impeded by thick leather shoe-soles.

Using these remarkable stories as inspiration, the Watching project aims to give children the opportunity to explore sleep science through music and drama of exceptional quality.

A new opera for children about sleep, written by myself in collaboration with Edinburgh-based composer Dee Isaacs, was produced at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, in March 2015.

In four sell-out twilight performances, audiences were led on a magical musical promenade through the landmark glasshouses, ending in the landmark Tropical Palm House.

The opera tells the story of one eventful sleepless night, drawing on 17th century beliefs about the miraculous, transformative properties of rest.

The opera also highlights the strange and often mysterious connections between the sleep cycles of plants and people.

Our current understanding of the human sleep cycle originates in the work of scientists who observed that the lives of plants – like those of humans – are governed by circadian rhythms which determine the movement of leaves and flowers in accordance with light sources in the environment.

The human body clock works along similar principles as we are designed to be active during daylight and to rest during hours of darkness.

Our dependence upon artificial light sources tends to disrupt this natural rhythm, and our increasing dependence upon light-emitting screens only exacerbates the problem.

Illuminating these urgent contemporary questions through history, literature and music, Watching aims to ignite fresh interest in the fascinating but neglected question of how and why we sleep.

You can find out more about the Watching project, together with links to advice about good sleep on the project website watching.eca.ed.ac.uk