The Magazine

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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The problem has grown to the point that fatigue management is becoming an industry, and governments in the United States, Australia, Canada, and Europe have begun to regulate it to prevent industrial accidents. In 2010, the oil industry agreed to take steps at every major plant to reduce overtime, train supervisors to recognize an overtired worker, and allow workers to confess fatigue. Martin Moore-Ede, a onetime professor at Harvard Medical School, now consults on fatigue management for a client list including more than half of the Fortune 500 companies. One transportation company discovered that fatigue-related accidents were costing $32,000 for every million miles traveled by its workers and equipment. Rules to restrict long work shifts and require workers to pass awareness tests brought those costs down to $8,000, Randall reports.  

The Iraq war also prompted American armed forces to be kinder to sleep as well. Thomas Balkin, chief of Walter Reed’s Department of Behavioral Biology, has put sleep at the top of his list of ways to keep soldiers effective. By the end of 2020, wristwatch-sized sleep monitors are expected to become standard gear, and once commanders can see how many hours a soldier has slept, they can make appropriate assignments, keeping fatigued soldiers away from tasks that require patience with civilians or strategic choices.

For women seeking better nights, one simple idea is to sleep in a separate bed if their husband snores. Women are far less likely to snore and also tend to be lighter sleepers. In one study, University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Wendy Troxel concluded that the quality of the wife’s sleep predicted happy interactions between couples more than any other measure of stress. Couples, however, tend
to see bedtime as their best chance to be alone together. Sharing a bed does lead to more sex; so, as ever, choices must be made, but sleep quality should not be ignored. 

Men also are more likely to sleepwalk, a subject to which Randall, a sleepwalker, gives an entire chapter. He includes the tale of Ken Parks, a gambler and embezzler whose wife had banished him to the couch. One Saturday night, Parks got off the couch and drove 14 miles on a busy highway to the home of her parents. His father-in-law awoke to the sensation of being strangled, lost consciousness, and awoke again with a police officer in his bedroom—fetched by Ken Parks, who had walked to a nearby police station and announced, “I’ve just killed two people.” He’d stabbed his mother-in-law five times and beat her over the head with a tire iron. He later appeared to have no memory of the night’s events; he had been sleepwalking, an event that occurs to about one in five people at least once in their lifetime. 

Parks was acquitted of the murder and assault. His wife divorced him.

Temma Ehrenfeld is a writer in New York.

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