The wild, wild world of sleep

Dreamland chronicles what we know...and what we don’t about sleep

Created date

December 25th, 2012
Couple sleeping

We live in a world where gigantic MRI machines produce images of our internal organs. Where bionic limbs replace real ones. Where once deadly and debilitating diseases are now easily cured. Medical research and science have made significant gains in just about every area of human physiology but one. Sleep. Although humans spend roughly one third of our lives asleep, science is still in the dark about this necessary human function. For David K. Randall, the science of sleep was more than just a passing interest. A restless sleeper whose nocturnal antics included talking, kicking, singing, and, occasionally, walking, Randall sought the advice of a sleep expert after one midnight stroll sent him into a wall and left him hobbled on the floor in pain. A reporter for Reuters and an adjunct professor of journalism at NYU, Randall explores the current state of sleep research and chronicles his personal quest to calm his nights in Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep. Soon after Randall began his pursuit of tranquil sleep, he was told by a neurologist, I m going to be honest with you. There s a lot that we know about sleep, but there s a lot we don t know. In fact, Randall never finds a cure for his sleep issues. What he did find is a great deal of fascinating research that helped him understand how to sleep better and makes Dreamland an interesting read.

Evolving sleep patterns

One of the most interesting chapters ofDreamlanddeals with the changes in human sleep patterns over time. Centuries ago, people s lives revolved around the sun. That is, when the sun went down, people went to sleep. When the sun came up, people got up. However, sometime around midnight, people awoke and did something besides try to go back to sleep. Some prayed. Others read or ate a snack. Farmers checked their animals. Parents checked their children. This was the normal nightly routine. The time spent at rest during the early evening was referred to as first sleep and the time spent sleeping after midnight was called second sleep. For anyone who awakens at the exact same time every single night, this is nothing short of a revelation. There s nothing wrong with you; you re just following circadian rhythms that are thousands of years old. Not until Thomas Edison s light bulb allowed people to be productive well into the night did the idea of sleeping in a single block of time become prevalent. As an interesting aside, Randall notes that Edison himself eschewed sleep, believing that anything in excess of three or four hours a night made a person unhealthy and inefficient.

The power of dreams

Entire libraries could be filled with books written about dreams. The value and significance of dreams has fascinated everyone from Sigmund Freud to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Francis Crick. While there is still much to learn about the dream state, it s clear that as the body rests, the mind is hard at work. An example of this is an interesting anecdote about golf legend Jack Nicklaus. Randall tells the story of when Nicklaus was favored to win the 1964 U.S. Open. Instead of winning however, Nicklaus bombed finishing in a dismal tie for 23rd place. To make matters worse, Nicklaus couldn t figure out what had thrown his game so far off course, even though he spent countless hours agonizing over how to make a correction. Shortly before his next tournament, Nicklaus awoke from a dream with a solution. In his dream, he was holding his golf club differently and he was playing well. He immediately headed to the golf course and, sure enough, the slight grip adjustment he dreamed about made all the difference. At his next tournament, the British Open, Nicklaus came in second. Today, it is widely recognized that dreams are the spawning ground of creativity and complex problem solving. So much so, that some forward-thinking companies like Google, Nike, and Cisco Systems have created napping stations in their workplaces to allow their engineers and designers to harness the power of dreams to generate new ideas. While Randall beginsDreamlandsaying that relatively little is known about sleep, it is abundantly clear that researchers are coming into what they call the golden age of sleep research. Randall s book is a fascinating look at where we are now and where we are going.