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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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The opening scene of Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way” is one of the most famously difficult to get through in literature. That’s not because of its style, which is sublime, but because it describes the experience of falling asleep. Many susceptible readers nod off the first few times they attempt it. All writing about sleep has this problem; of the fundamental human appetites, it’s the least exciting. The better you invoke it, the more likely you are to incite it, and because it can’t be remembered, sleep can’t be described. Nothing could be duller than watching someone else do it. Only people who can’t sleep spend much time thinking about it, and if there’s anything more tedious than witnessing another person’s nap, it’s listening to a keyed-up, obsessive insomniac go on and on about how they can’t.

So kudos to David K. Randall for writing what must be the most diverting and consistently fascinating book on the topic ever,  “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep.” I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject because I’ve read quite a few sleep books in my time. My interest arises from my own mild parasomnia, or sleep disorder, one that runs in my family. We talk and sometimes walk in our sleep. Randall suffers from the same condition, although of the two of us, he’s the only one who’s truly  suffered from it. A few years ago, he hurt himself when he collided with a wall while sleepwalking. It was the first time (he knows of) that he’d ever walked in his sleep, but every night his wife curls up at the far end of their “oversized” bed, wearing earplugs to shut out his “talking, singing, laughing, humming, giggling, grunting.” Also, he kicks.

If there’s anything creepier than hearing someone laugh in their sleep, it’s got to be another of Randall’s propensities; he can fall asleep with his eyes open. We deduce, therefore, that his wife is a woman of fortitude, but the sleepwalking incident freaked her out properly. She insisted he seek treatment and Randall visited a sleep lab. An uncomfortable night spent with electrodes taped to his head elicited the observation “you certainly kick a lot” and not much more. Randall learned that “sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science.” We don’t know as much about it as we should, or could.

Hence, “Dreamland,” a book that cleverly approaches a spectrum of sleep-related issues from the worst-case-scenario perspective. If you want to know how serious the problem of sleep deprivation can be, look at the U.S. Army, which is only just coming to terms with the role lack of sleep plays in the 25 percent of American combat deaths resulting from friendly fire. During the occupation of Iraq, soldiers sleeping less than four hours per night reported five times as many altercations with civilians as those who had the full eight. Lack of sleep impairs a person’s ability to make decisions, communicate with others and improvise effectively. Well, we all know that, don’t we? But learning how much blood and good will has been squandered as a result of macho attitudes toward soldiers’ sleep needs (four hours a night — for hardworking 20-year-olds — really?) is sobering.

Randall explores the significance of circadian rhythms — the body’s internal clock, which “tells an organism when it is time to perform an important activity and when it is time to rest” — by looking at the lives of professional athletes. Stanford sleep researchers, he relates, demonstrated that East Coast football teams labored under a permanent disadvantage in Monday night football games. The games were always scheduled at 9 p.m. EST, no matter where they were played, to maximize television viewership. The average human body will “perk up around nine o’clock in the morning and stay that way until around two in the afternoon, which is when we start thinking about a nap. Around six in the evening, the body gets another shot of energy that keeps us going until about 10 at night.” A three-hour jet lag may sound minor, but it meant that West Coast teams always played at what their bodies thought was 6:00 p.m., a peak in the cycle, while their East Coast opponents played at a time when their bodies were winding down. The point spreads reflected the difference.

 
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