The soporific boogaloo

The Guardian has a short piece and gallery on what couple’s sleeping positions say about their relationship. The article is based on a humorous book called The Secret Language Of Sleep and it’s not quite clear that the writer has picked up on the fact its not meant to be taken too seriously.

The idea that sleep position is linked to personality is surprisingly popular but largely untested. Only poorly controlled study has ever tried to investigate the issue. It chose only 6 out of 14 sleep position recorded from 51 females and concluded that “Sleep positions, particularly the full fetal position, appear to be related to CPI [California Psychological Inventory] variables of Sociability, Sense of Well Being, Achievement by Conformance, Femininity, and Social Maturity”.

The general idea, however, has quite an interesting history. It was originally suggested in passing by the early psychoanalysts and fits well into Freud’s theory of dreaming.

He suggested that when we sleep we are left alone with our unconscious which may contain lots of unpleasant or unwanted desires we don’t want to think about. If we did, we might become so emotionally disturbed as to wake up, therefore, according to Freud, dreams serve to hide our unconscious desires from us by presenting them to us in a more acceptable symbolic form.

From this perspective, dreams serve to keep us asleep and Freud’s big idea was that we can analyse the dream’s ‘manifest’ or obvious content to give us an insight into the ‘latent’ or unconscious meaning. This is why Freud famously wrote that dreams are a “royal road to the unconscious”.

According to Freudian theory, our personalities are largely a reflection of how we manage and ‘defend’ against out our unconscious desires. As our dreaming life occasionally breaks through into movement or speech when we sleep, it’s not a big leap to link sleep position with personality.

This link was made explicitly in a 1979 book called Sleep Positions: The Night Language of the Body by the psychoanalytically inclined psychiatrist Samuel Dunkell. In the book, Dunkell readily admits there is no research to back up his ideas but links personality with sleep position on the basis of individual cases and anecdotes from his own practice, as psychoanalysts have a tendency to do.

Despite being based almost entirely on one man’s opinion, the book has been remarkably influential in pop culture and there has been a steady trickle of media interest ever since that has repeated the main ideas.

In fact, the Huffington Post, which has become an unintentional champion of dodgy science, ran a piece only last week that claimed to explain ‘What Your Sleep Position Says About You’ based almost entirely on Dunkell’s book.

There was a brief media splash in 2003 when sleep psychologist Chris Idzikowski claimed almost exactly the same based on a ‘new study’ but it never appeared and was presumably a PR piece for the private sleep clinic he worked for.

So we don’t really know if sleep position is linked to personality, and certain can’t ‘read’ anything about you from your night-time body position.

But the theory is so popular that even a satirical book can apparently be misinterpreted as supporting the idea.

Link to Guardian piece ‘The politics of sharing a bed’.

2 thoughts on “The soporific boogaloo”

  1. My sleep positions are usually governed by my physiology.
    If I have eaten too much and may have acid reflux, I sleep on my left side. That keeps the stomach acids where they belong.
    If I have chest congestion, I sleep with my head elevated. That lets me breath easier.
    And if I’m having lower back pain, I sleep in my recliner. That makes a huge difference when I get up.
    Jim Purdy

  2. The pseudo-science your mother (and professors) warned you about. ^_^
    Is it just me, or does the media seem more evil/misguided/stupid than necessary? Moreover, isn’t it ironic that someone with a journalism degree has more sway over public opinion and knowledge than an expert (doctor, psychologist, plumber, etc)?

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