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Dreamland

Katie L. Burke

DREAMLAND: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep. David K. Randall. W. W. Norton and Co., $25.95.

Click to Enlarge ImageSleeping is not as easy as it looks. And neither is studying it, as author David K. Randall makes clear in Dreamland. “The more you know about sleep, the more its strangeness unnerves you,” he writes. Each chapter of the book covers current and historical research on a particular sleep predicament, including sleepwalking, getting infants to sleep, sharing a bed, interpreting dreams, and the problems of sleep deprivation, sleep apnea, insomnia and circadian rhythm disruptions such as jet lag.

One might think that a book about sleep would be lacking in the plot department, but Randall finds plenty of action in the subject, on scales large and small. He visits a company that makes equipment to treat sleep apnea and learns that its owners expect profit margins to increase as fast-food restaurants expand worldwide, in turn increasing obesity-related sleep disorders. He describes the case of a man who unwittingly committed a brutal murder while sleepwalking and was declared innocent by a jury. Readers will discover both the surprising difficulty of keeping a lab rat awake and the significant costs of sleep deprivation to the military—in equipment destroyed and even in lives lost.

The impetus for this book, Randall tells us, was his desire—and that of his wife, who endured his unconscious laughing and kicking in bed—to cure his own sleepwalking. His playful and inquisitive writing encourages self-experimentation: Reading of his experiences spending the night in sleep labs and trying out sleep monitors, I found myself asking, for example, “What will happen if I refrain from using artificial lights or computer screens for a whole Saturday?” (Answer: I felt sleepier both in the late afternoon and again at nightfall, and overall I slept more than usual. But I lay awake for 30 minutes at 3 a.m., which, according to Randall, is consistent with reports of sleep patterns in the Middle Ages.)

As the fluffy pillow and clouds on the front cover suggest, Dreamland is a light read, perfect for getting oneself in the mood for a good night’s sleep. Randall’s background research is sound—the book’s bibliography includes plenty of primary sources on the science of sleep. And although the book offers critiques of historical research paradigms, such as Freud’s psychosexual dream interpretations, it is not a detailed scholarly overview. Its aim is to summarize aspects of the current body of sleep research that will be of wide interest, which Randall accomplishes with finesse.

Dreamland demonstrates that getting a good night’s sleep can take effort—for example, monitoring lighting and temperature in one’s bedroom and structuring one’s schedule such that appropriate amounts of sleep are regularly achieved—but that the benefits are well worth the work. Studies Randall covers suggest that innovation, critical thinking, rational decision making, workplace efficiency, physical health and emotional stability all increase markedly with better sleep. As he puts it, “Health, sex, relationships, creativity, memories—all of these things that make us who we are depend on the hours we spend each night with our heads on the pillow.”


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