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Perchance to Dream

One-third of a lifetime in a twilight of the mind.

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
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David K. Randall begins this glide through dreamland with a quote from Aldous Huxley: “That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep.” 

‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli (1781)

‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli (1781)

If Huxley could see us now. In our zippy global economy, sleep has begun to seem quaint. People take glowing laptops to bed and pride themselves on sleeping as little as possible. In fact, scientists don’t know why humans need sleep at all. From an evolutionary perspective, the idea is odd: Lying corpse-like for long and regular stretches of time once left humans open to attacks by animals and took hours away from hunting and gathering, much as it now interferes with jobs that demand travel across time zones and rapid email response. 

Yet we do need this odd time timeout—even more than we think—which is why Texas Rangers coach Fernando Montes makes his pitchers nap before games in the bowels of the stadium. 

A veteran reporter at Reuters with a sleepwalking problem, Randall tours the history, science, and sociology of sleep, as well as the debates over practical issues like sharing a bed (if sleep is the priority, best not) and which mattress to buy (it doesn’t matter). And at 304 pages, Dreamland is quick, lucid, and modest, providing something like the effect of a good 20-minute nap. You’ll emerge with the sense of time well spent, more alert to the satisfactions of a well-rested life.

Sleep was different and better before the advent of electric light. Once upon a time, night was both more fearsome and more peaceful than it is today. Farmers in feudal Europe raced to get inside city walls before they were locked out—for fear of hours in the wilderness fending off robbers and wolves. Stabbings, sword fights, and the sound of dead bodies splashing into canals were ordinary occurrences on dark city streets. Indoors, the sleeping arrangements were far worse than any hostel or dormitory room: Soon after sundown, families checked their one room for rats and bugs before blowing out a candle; parents retreated to a mattress unworthy of the name by modern standards; children curled nearby on soft heaps of rags.  

Yet those peasants seem to have slept better than we do. Sleep came in two parts: “The first sleep,” mentioned in The Canterbury Tales and 15th-century medical texts, lasted from sundown until midnight. Then people normally enjoyed a blissful hour or so of prayer, study, and (often) sex. Apparently both men and women liked it better when they had a good rest before lovemaking. After their interlude, people slept again until dawn. 

In the 1990s, National Institute of Mental Health psychiatrist Thomas Wehr kept his subjects away from artificial light for up to 14 hours a day. At first, they slept “like kids in a candy store”—catching up. “After a few weeks, the subjects were better rested than perhaps at any other time in their lives,” Randall writes. Then they began stirring after midnight and enjoying an hour awake, following the old pattern. When Wehr tested their blood he learned that, in that midnight hour, their brains were awash in prolactin, a hormone connected to the peace after orgasm.  

In short, people who lived without artificial light enjoyed an hour each and every night that now takes an entire day at a spa.

That sleep-killer Thomas Edison saw no problem with the fact that his light bulbs were creating graveyard shifts on assembly lines. He argued that any more than four hours of sleep a day was unhealthy, but treated himself to frequent naps, keeping a small cot and pillow in his lab. Now, Randall writes, “we have so much artificial light that after a 1994 earthquake knocked out the power, some residents of Los Angeles called the police to report a strange ‘giant, silvery cloud’ in the sky above them. It was the Milky Way.” In the United States only 1 percent of the population lives in an area that does not meet the standard of light “pollution”: when artificial lights make the night sky more than 10 times brighter than nature intended. 

In our overbright world, sleep loss is taking its toll. People stay out late and go to work early. Fatigue causes accidents and erodes human problem--solving ability, creativity, and, in extreme cases, moral judgment. Randall tells the story of American soldiers in Baghdad who executed four Iraqis against orders, dumping their bodies in a canal. Their lawyers and a military psychologist argued (unsuccessfully) that they were too tired to behave rationally. 

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