I used to joke that if they made an olympic sport of sleeping I’d be a contestant. Regular nights of 9, 10, … 12 hrs are common. And then the dreams! I’d recount some now except I’d be divulging my deepest secrets and sellable plots (maybe not quite the deepest or the most sellable although I did dream the plot of “Nausicaa and the valley of the wind” before I ever saw it). Trust me that they’re entertaining and bizarre.
Lately, however, with various sicknesses passing the two family households in St Louis, sleep has been hard won. Last week at the library, I found the non-fiction book “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep“. Less interested in how to sleep better and more just curious about sleep, this book suited me by delivering just that.
Before opening this book all I knew about sleep was a random amalgam of REM, Freud and Jung, naps of specific lengths, “sleep cycles”, a vague sense that invoking sleep in the learning process helped (in school I must have tested this, but didn’t counter-test by trying to learn without sleep except that one time with too much orange juice…), and a wariness of the grumpy sleep-deprived Lara.
This book begins with ancient ideas of Plato, a drastic change of dream interpretation introduced by Freud (that is, he began to interpret) then others. The first sleep lab opened in the 1950s, but not all the breakthroughs came from a lab. Before lightbulbs made artificial light safe and prevalent, sleep was split into first and second sleep with a couple of apparently extra awesome hours in the middle of the night (and the best to conceive in). That was discovered in retrospect by a historian of colonial and revolutionary America in completely unrelated research (he loved sleep — who doesn’t?).
The book goes through scientific studies on the detriments of a lack of “good” sleep including (among many others) hallucinations and paranoia after a couple of days and a higher incidence of cancer in overly lit areas. The book gives a scary survey of war accidents whose root cause is given as sleep deprivation. Luckily (?), the armies are learning to enforce sleeping minimums much like what is done for truckers on the highways (I hear).
I was most intrigued by details of studies on learning: after first exposure to the new subject/exercise/game, sleep on it, then try again and the learning will be far better than without the sleep (tired or not!).
These were just my favourites, but the book is full of other stories, science and speculation — a whole book worth in fact — all while being wonderful readable. On the cover comes a warning from Randi Hutter Epstein:
If you start at night, you’ll be up a long time, but at least you’ll know precisely how your sleeplessness altered your brain, body, and athletic prowess.