Book of the week: Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall

The author, a sleepwalker, brings wit and curiosity to his exploration of the science of sleep.

(Norton, $26)

Blame Thomas Edison for our sleep-deprived lives, said Kate Tuttle in The Boston Globe. As journalist David K. Randall reminds us, current theory holds that until the advent of electric lighting, our ancestors slumbered soundly in two shifts—a so-called “first sleep” beginning not long past sundown, followed by a “second sleep” after an extended period of wakefulness beginning around midnight. Such segmented sleep is indeed so natural that we revert to it in the absence of artificial light. Randall, a sleepwalker, decided to write Dreamland after one of his nocturnal sojourns was cut short by a sharp collision with a wall. In other writers’ hands, the science of insomnia, troubled dreams, and various other sleeping disorders can be “a vaguely dispiriting landscape.” Fortunately, “Randall’s wit and curiosity make him a comforting guide.”

The “inventive angles” he dreams up greatly enliven the journey, said Laura Miller in Contemplating sleep deprivation, he cites Army studies showing that soldiers in Iraq were five times more likely to clash with civilians when they got less than four hours of shut-eye. Writing about circadian rhythms, he notes that the NFL has found that East Coast teams lose a disproportionate share of night games to West Coast teams, most likely because the bodies of the first group are winding down while their counterparts’ are experiencing a second wind. Turning to sleepwalking, he details how it could be possible that a Toronto man killed his mother-in-law while somnambulating. Always, Randall reminds us that science hasn’t unraveled many of sleep’s mysteries. “We don’t know as much about it as we should, or could.”

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Randall’s style “sometimes veers toward the glib,” said Maureen Corrigan in Still, Dreamland offers an eye-opening fact on nearly every page. Its passage on the possible links between exposure to artificial light and the higher rates of diseases among night-shift workers proves “as stimulating as a double shot of espresso.” Also fascinating is his tour through the debate over dreams. Leftover Freudians still see them as messages from the unconscious while some pragmatists dismiss them as the waste product of REM sleep. I prefer to embrace the evidence indicating that dreams help us solve problems from our waking lives. Then again, “I’m partial to any research that recommends taking a Dagwood nap in response to life’s dilemmas.”

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