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“Dreamland”: Inside the Mystery of Sleep

A fascinating new book, “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep,” explores the latest research on humanity's most enigmatic everyday activity.

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Perhaps the most bizarre material in “Dreamland” concerns sleepwalking, and specifically the responsibility a person has for any crimes he commits while asleep. It happens. If most sleepwalkers are like me — barely able to bumble across the room before waking ourselves up — a rare, unlucky few have been known to perform complex actions, like cooking or driving a car, while unconscious. In 1988, a 23-year-old Toronto man was acquitted of murdering his mother-in-law while asleep. Randall notes that “parasomnias seemed to be a particularly male trait,” but I suspect that men, who are more prone to aggressive dreams in the first place, are more likely than women to engage in sleepwalking that presents a threat to others. Attempting to strangle one’s bed partner because you think he or she is an attacker is a classic example. Less dangerous forms of sleepwalking, like my own, simply don’t get reported.

The most unusual thing I’ve ever done in my sleep is write a letter — although I’d only managed the salutation before the difficulty of the task woke me up. The next morning, the handwritten evidence of this incident spooked me. It was like a message from a stranger I could never meet, but who just happened to inhabit the same body. Whether I could be held responsible for this stranger’s actions isn’t a question I’ve ever had to face, but it’s the kind of quandary that courts, legal scholars and a handful of neurologists have had to wrestle with. One expert Randall interviews advocates a new classification for such crimes: “semi-voluntary.” If the culprit knows he has a problem and doesn’t take measures to control it, he holds at least some responsibility for the results.

The concept of an unconscious mind has fallen out of intellectual favor, associated as it is with largely invalidated Freudian models of the self. Yet some of the sleep-related subjects Randall covers in “Dreamland” do touch upon this territory, from dreams to the many accounts of people who, after having pondering a persistent problem, suddenly woke up with a fully formed solution. Paul McCartney wrote the hit song “Yesterday” in just this way.

It appears that, while asleep, the brain sorts through the day’s events and lays down long-term memories, an administrative process that Randall describes as “cleaning up and organizing the mind’s filing cabinet.” This does not at all resemble the highly symbolic theater that human beings have imagined the dream landscape to be for millennia. However, in a later sleep stage, once the initial tidying is over, the brain begins “finding connections and associations with the data embedded in its memory cards,” a creative activity that looks an awful lot like thinking. This makes the idea of an unconscious self seem less obsolete.

“Dreamland” covers an abundance of other slumber-related issues, from sleep apnea to the importance of mattresses (which is negligible) to the interesting fact that most people sleep much better alone. It’s all weirdly fascinating, which — trust me — is a testimony to the lively curiosity, solid research and inventive angles that Randall brings to each aspect of his subject. You almost certainly don’t sleep the way you think you do. There’s much evidence to indicate that people are the worst possible information sources when it comes to their own sleep habits. That’s not surprising when you consider that they’re unconscious for most of it. It’s remarkable to think that such a mundane activity should still be shrouded in so much mystery, but you couldn’t find a more charming guide to what we do know than “Dreamland.”

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