Two Books on Sleep

We spend a full third of our life sleeping, but what do we really know about it. Why do we sleep? What causes us to sleep? What happens when we sleep? All these questions remain unanswered, but scientists are working–dare I say it? oh, why not–around the clock to explain why we can’t work around the clock.

On the academic side, the latest report from the somnabulent world is Peretz Lavie’sĀ The Enchanted World of Sleep. Translated from the original Hebrew with aplomb by Anthony Berris, Lavie’s book introduces us to the world of scientific sleep study through one of the original sleep institutes, the Sleep Laboratory at the Technion–the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Prof. Lavie, who is dean of the Faculty of Medicine and head of the Laboratory, is uniquely qualified to give such a historical perspective, because he did his graduate work under Prof. Bernie Webb, one of the founders of sleep research.

It should be noted that what these scientists are studying is the mechanisms of sleep. While dream state is included in this, they are interested in only the fact that someone is dreaming, not about what the dream relates. Such dream studies are the province of psychologists. Prof. Lavie and his collegues are medical doctors who are interested in the physiology of sleep–what happens when people are deprived of sleep through natural (brain disorders, etc.) and unnatural (sleep deprivation experiments, etc.) events. One of the many myths exploded in this book is that a majority of people sleep poorly. Instead, Prof. Lavie proves, people only think they don’t sleep well, whereas in comparison studies, their sleep is as even as the next persons. The person’s opinion is solely based on a perception that occurs during the first thirty minutes of sleep, and can be easily corrected by controlling simple environmental variables (noise, light, etc.). While The Enchanted World of SleepĀ is meant for an audience of his peers, it is written as much as a personal memoir, detailing his own experiences with patients at the Sleep Laboratory. The author comparison that I was inevitably drawn to is that of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who also explains some tough medical mysteries by using personal experience.

A little lighter in tone, and much more accessible to the most techno- or medio-phobic of lay readers is Sleep Thieves by Stanley Cohen. While Cohen’s book does not have the same claim to impartial accuracy of the researcher, it gains ground by its engrossing style and an ability to merge folklore with medical studies. The whole, as it appears, is then dissected, and Cohen ends up destroying as many myths as Prof. Lavie (in many cases, the same ones). Cohen does have a purpose with his book, and that is to say that as a culture, we are running up a “sleep debt”; that is, by denying ourselves the amount of sleep that our bodies need, we endanger ourselves and others. Before he gets to this conclusion, his common ground with Prof. Lavie is visited, including studies on sleep deprivation and its results, people’s perceptions of sleep, and the amount of sleep that our bodies fall into without the self-regulating clock of the sun. His conclusion is tied together neatly, with a fine work of statistical research using the time lost and gained during the change from and to Daylight Savings Time. Lack of sleep, due to cultural demands, is a major cause of accidents that are often fatal.

Both books are intriguing, showing us another world, one that appears while our eyes are closed. But it is Cohen’s book, with its amazing conclusion that lives with you, making it obvious that “sleep debt” is not just a funny phrase, but a real problem, and one that is being ignored by almost everyone. It is time, as Cohen ironically states, for us to wake up about sleep.

[Finished 1 January 1995]

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