This Little Town Is the Subject of One Big Sleep Experiment

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Photo: Thurston Hopkins/Getty Images

Bad Kissingen is a small resort town in Bavaria, the German state, with a population just north of 20,000. It is also, according to the new book Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World, the subject of some experimental tinkering by chronobiologists, who are attempting to reshape the community around residents’ collective sleep patterns. You might, then, call Bad Kissingen a … sleepy … little town. (Sorry. I’m sorry.)

The project — which is led by Thomas Kantermann and has been given the zippy futuristic name “Chrono City” — is in its early days yet, but in a book excerpt published in Popular Science, author Benjamin Reiss outlines the gist:

Residents of the town will be equipped with a wearable device outfitted with a sophisticated app that tracks sleep in relation to a myriad of waking variables: work, exercise, diet, mood, screen use, social activities, and so on. The goal is to obtain “significant insights into the interactions between chronobiology and the manifold structures of the society” and “to design innovative and directly applicable solutions” to problems involving collective sleep disturbance.

From there, Kantermann and his colleagues would analyze data collected and use it to inform things like the time school starts and ends, or when hospital patients should given certain medications. Also on the to-do list: Rig up the lights around town “to mimic the transition from dusk to dawn,” and hand out “intelligent alarm clocks” that would make waking up easier, by nudging the townsfolk awake when they’re in their lightest phase of sleep.

Ambitious stuff. (It sounds a little like a more targeted version of the Kavli HUMAN project, which aims to track the health-and-behavior data of 10,000 New Yorkers over 20 years.) And yet Reiss is skeptical of the ultimate usefulness of Chrono City’s goals. The scientists, he argues, are largely going about this the wrong way, he says, by “attempting to repair broken sleep with some of the tools that broke it: alarm clocks, all-seeing screens, hovering experts, mountains of data and advice, concerns about productivity, and new rules and new reasons to obsess.” An annoying reminder of the way focusing too intently on improving your sleep sometimes only makes the problem that much worse.

A Little Town Is the Subject of One Big Study on Sleep