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In the land of Nod

24 March 2017

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IT MAY have been through a pro­found sense of irony, or an accept­ance of the realities of radio schedul­ing; but the decision to programme the open­­ing lecture of Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival (Friday to Sunday) was certainly a peculiar one. For the message from Russell Foster, Pro­fessor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, was that we need our sleep; and, by implica­tion, those up past 10 p.m. listen­­ing to him deliver his assess­­ment of a modern, sleep-deprived society should really switch off and go to bed.

Indeed, most of Radio 3’s Free Thinking programmes are at a late hour, and this year’s festival, de­­voted to sleep, will therefore be delivering regular dollops of shame and anxiety. It is also the time when, Professor Foster says, the most catastrophic decisions are made.

Disasters ranging from the first great train crash, at Thirsk, in 1892, to the Chernobyl explosion in 1986 were the result of over-tired workers. Thousands of accidents can be attributed to lack of sleep; and at 4 a.m. we are apparently as competent to operate a car or any other machinery as the average boozer after several whiskys.

The trouble is that human bio­logy, formed over hundreds of thou­sands of years, has not been able to adapt quickly enough to the de­­mands of modern business machismo or the artificial stimula­tion of caffeine, social media, and i-devices. Teenagers, Professor Fos­ter says, need nine hours’ sleep for full cog­nitive performance. On average, they get seven, which means that many of them get a great deal less.

The list of medical conditions that are associated with lack of sleep reads like the checklist of a creative hypochondriac. We should be teach­ing the benefits of sleep to our students, making it a main part of health strategy: if the result is only that the message makes people feel drowsy, then it’s a win-win.

Of course, it could all be a gov­ernment conspiracy. If we were not all tired so much of the time, per­haps we would question more con­sistently the way in which we are governed, and the things to which we tacitly consent.

In a new two-part series, The Age of Consent (Radio 4, Mondays), Helena Kennedy QC has set out to unpick the assumptions on which our consent is based, to a background of glowering, uncomfortable music, and the sounds of rioting occasionally punctuating the offer­ings of social scientists.

We were taken back to the 17th century, at a time when the assump­tion of a God-given right to rule was being replaced by theories of social contract. Anybody who owns prop­erty, uses the public highways, or benefits from law and order is, according to Locke, implicitly bound by the social contract.

But, as one former Lord Justice admitted, there is no law that says you must obey the law. The 2011 London riots were invoked more than once on this programme, and the question that one took away was not, why did people riot on that or on other occasions? but, rather, why do people not go out and riot, loot, and pillage regularly?

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