Wednesday, June 5, 2013

review of David Randall's Dreamland

David Randall has written a fun and informative book on an interesting and mysterious topic: sleep. His pursuit starts with a personal interest in his own sleep problems and extends into the world of science and sleep research. The book reads easily through a range of sleep-related topics-- ironically, not helping one to sleep if reading it before bedtime. 

Personal disclosure: I have relatively little trouble with sleep-- infrequently enough where I can remember only a few times when it's taken me more than 5-10 minutes to fall sleep (that said, I often read myself to sleep or do puzzles until I can't stay awake)-- and another handful of times when I wake up in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep (often, there seems to be something for which I am supposed to pray). So, I read the book because it sounded interesting-- and I was not disappointed.

Since the book is a compendium of sleep-related topics, this is probably the closest Randall comes to a thesis: "Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don't have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science...a lot that we don't know about sleep, starting with the most obvious question of all-- why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place." (p. 17-18)

A number of spiritual speculations come to mind, but presumably there are mental and physical components as well. Biologically, there should be (overall) advantages to having significant sleep, but what are they? "If sleep doesn't serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution [and/or God] ever made." (19) Further, Randall notes that sleep is not always correlated with size-- and that some animals rest only half of their brain at a time.

Randall notes that sleep is when the body rests, but then again, one can have a sleep that does not seem restful. In fact, this gets to the one sleep mystery I'd like to understand: why the amount of sleep at night or in a nap is often unrelated to the way one feels upon wakening. (The best practical [scientific?] advice I've received was to nap for less than one half-hour or for more than 1.5 hours. Randall does not discuss this.)

Chapter 1 includes a brief discussion of REM. Discovered in the 1950s, this stage of sleep features a brain as active as when awake-- and it's the time when most dreams occur. 

Chapter 2 includes a description of "second sleep" (33)-- a period of an hour or so in the middle of the night when people would commonly/naturally awaken and engage in activity. The key: second sleep occurs when we're deprived of nighttime light. Randall describes modern experiments where subjects would sleep without any light (34-35), with the same result. From there, he details the changes (and troubles) caused by the introduction of light (36ff). 

Chapter 4 is devoted to children-- from the observation that half of their sleep is REM (72) to the decision of parents to sleep with children or not (70) and the debate between Ferber's "cry it out" and Sears' "attachment" theories. Until the start of the 20th century, it was common for a young child to sleep in the same room as parents, but increased standards of living and some peer pressure led to a change in views (78). Randall describes literature on sleep patterns for children across countries (79-80) and finds differences without a distinction, except for the importance of maintaining a routine (82). (This is similar to the result that beds don't matter-- except for sticking to a routine [252-259].)

In Chapters 5 and 6, Randall focuses on what happens during dreams, ranging from the previously dominant theories of Freud to more modern interpretations pioneered by Calvin Hull-- where the brain is making an effort to process information. Randall provides some cool examples of "discoveries" during dreams: benzene's chemical structure, vitamin C, Coleridge's Kubla Khan, McCartney's Yesterday, and Meyer's Twilight books (111-112). I've had a few of these, but I've also had a handful where I was convinced I had found something that turned out to be nonsensical. Randall describes cool experiments where problem-solving ability was enhanced by sleep-- in between exposures to a puzzle, implying that the brain was working during the rest (116-117). 

Chapter 7 turns to efforts to regulate and postpone sleep-- from caffeine to speed (132-133). In subsequent chapters, Randall applies this to the world of war, work, sports, and teenagers. Randall notes that teen bodies move to a later time orientation, where staying up later and getting up later are more natural. He lays out amazing (difficult to believe) evidences about the benefits of cooperating with those rhythms in terms of school performance and even bullying (202-208).

In chapter 11, Randall reverses the question and brings the book full circle, by asking about efforts to embrace sleep. He notes the limited help provided by pills and the need to not to *try* to sleep-- and provides some helpful if obvious hints about light, routine, comfort, etc.

Sleep tight. It might help to curl up with Randall's book on sleep.


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