Sleep is an important area of human health, so it makes sense that it has been such a focal point for technology developers. Insufficient sleep is associated with many health problems, including fatigue and cognitive difficulties, not to mention an increased risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Here's the big problem with sleep-related technology.
Even in the developed world, sleep deprivation is a huge problem, with millions of people sleeping less hours than they need consistently and costly.
New technologies are constantly emerging to solve this problem of sleep deprivation, especially in the United States, encouraging people to sleep better (and to pay more attention to their habits).
Materials technologies have been deployed for decades, with advances such as better mattresses and innovative specialized blankets that claim to help you sleep better every night. But these days, it's even more common to see high-tech devices, gadgets, and apps that want to improve the quality of your sleep.
While these intentions are good and sleep deprivation is a significant problem, sleep-related technology faces a huge problem that it cannot necessarily overcome: our lack of understanding of sleep on a scientific level.
The mystery of sleep
Sleep remains a major mystery, even for sleep scientists who have spent their entire adult lives studying this area. For starters, different people have different sleep needs. For some people, 7 hours of sleep is enough to feel well rested and reduce their risk of various illnesses.
For others, 9 am is more appropriate. There is even a subset of the population for whom only a few hours of sleep per night is sufficient. Why do these differences exist? And how can you determine the number of hours of sleep that is right for you?
If scientists cannot answer this question, technology developers and consumers certainly cannot.
Companies also claim to be able to track the quality of your sleep throughout the night, by providing you with parameters such as your heart rate or breathing rate to help you determine when, if ever, your vital signs change during the night.
This information varies in usefulness, as it may not be able to provide you with a solid recommendation on how to adjust your sleep patterns, even taking into account the new information. An even more complex area is the study of brain waves during sleep and the use of things like binaural beats to modify your brain waves to help you fall asleep faster.
Technologies that claim to take advantage of these factors are not necessarily science-based and may or may not effectively do what they claim.
The average person can take many steps to improve the quality (and quantity) of their sleep, but that has little to do with high-tech gadgets. For example, you can try to exercise daily, limit your caffeine intake and meditate before bedtime.
You can use gadgets to help you in these areas, track your workouts and eating habits, or guide you in meditation. Still, it's hard to use technology to have a direct impact on the way you sleep each night, given our limited understanding of how sleep works.
Clinical validation and scientific support
There is also a regulatory and oversight problem. Tech companies can claim that their apps and devices do just about anything, without needing to get third-party approval.
A problem with third party information is especially true if they are careful in its formulation; for example, they may claim that this app allows you to listen to "soothing and relaxing music that facilitates a better night's sleep". The third party need not say that "if you listen to this music, you will fall asleep within 10 minutes and stay asleep for 8 hours." "
Some entrepreneurs do everything possible to test their products in a real environment and report their results to market the product. However, there is a big difference between a small-scale test run by a startup trying to assess the effectiveness of its product and a large-scale clinical trial.
It is easy to distort your results whether you like it or not. As a result, the accuracy of so-called sleep trackers is questionable at best, and there is little evidence to support a single device or app to facilitate better quality sleep across multiple demographics.
If such a technology were fundamentally supported by scientific evidence, thousands of entrepreneurs would take advantage of it and millions of people would sleep well every night, but that is not the case.
The anxiety feedback loop
There is also evidence to suggest that chronic use of sleep apps can produce insomnia. Insomnia is likely to be due to the nature of anxiety and its role in the quality of sleep. For example, suppose a consumer has trouble sleeping.
They stay awake until late at night, swaying, turning around and distracted by persistent obsessive thoughts. They're starting to use a sleep tracking app that uses a combination of data analytics, sleep-optimized music, and other forms of assistance to help them sleep better.
After a few nights, they begin to pay close attention to their sleep parameters as they change throughout the night. They know it takes them a while to fall asleep, so they start to think about it more.
They start to wonder if the music playing them actually helps them fall asleep, and they regularly connect with the app throughout the night. This makes them more stressed and more anxious, which makes falling asleep even more difficult.
This type of problem could be revealed by an intensive scientific study, but again, most sleep technology companies are unwilling to take this step.
Back to basics
Successful sleep apps tend to focus on the fundamentals of better sleep. The focus is on the fact that they are not trying to measure sleep and they are not pretending to be a medical device, two of the most important issues for apps sleep.
Instead of tracking thousands of data points, some of which may not even matter, they focus on essential general habits, like calming your mind before bed or helping you track your diet and your exercise habits.
They also don't pretend to solve your problems like magic; instead, they simply support you in the habits you would have taken up anyway.
What we can learn
Why is it important? There are a few important things to remember here, the most important being related to your use of sleep technology in your own life. It is important to take into account the complaints of any sleep application or portable device with a grain of salt; because the understanding of the sleep scientific community is limited.
It is unlikely that a single startup has gotten information or answers beyond what we already know. Excessive dependence on high-tech sleeping pills can lead to poorer quality sleep and persistent insomnia.
But we can also zoom out and learn a thing or two about the nature of new technologies and the importance of skepticism on the part of consumers. This is especially true given the diversity of devices that are deployed in the world of IoT.
First, having more data does not necessarily lead to better results; you can collect any data you want about your sleep patterns, but if that doesn't lead to any meaningful direction on how to improve your sleep patterns, it won't help you.
Second, businesses in new spaces can make virtually any claim they want, with minimal impact. It is not because an application developer claims that the application works in a certain way or leads to some improvement.
Of course, there are valuable sleep-related apps and a plethora of valuable IoT devices. If you want to get the most out of it and continue to support cutting-edge technology, it is essential to dig deeper and look for evidence of their effectiveness.
It is also important to know that there are areas that we do not yet fully understand – and developing technologies in these areas can be a futile exercise (at least in the short term). Until we know more about sleep at a fundamental level, sleep app developers and entrepreneurs will have their work cut out for them.