Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep

BOOK: Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep
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Dreamland

 

ADVENTURES IN THE STRANGE SCIENCE OF SLEEP

 

 

David K. Randall

 

W. W. NORTON & COMPANY

New York

London

 

 

For Megan

 

That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep.

—ALDOUS HUXLEY

1

 

I Know What You Did Last Night

 

 

O
ne night, not long ago, a man found himself collapsed in a hallway, clutching his leg like a wounded bear. As his curses and howls echoed through the walls of his apartment on an otherwise silent Tuesday night, a thought passed across his brain: something had gone wrong. It was after midnight. He was not supposed to be in this position, on his back on a hardwood floor, and he was definitely not supposed to be in this much pain. He lay there, hurt and confused, not knowing what had happened, since his last memory was laying his head down on a pillow in the bedroom thirty feet away.

That man was me. It had never occurred to me, before that moment, that falling asleep could lead to injury. But there I was, in my boxers, piecing together the last few hours of my life like a disheveled detective who came late to a crime scene. Three things were immediately clear: 1) I had crashed into a wall in my apartment while sleepwalking; 2) I don’t sleepwalk with my arms out in front of me like a zombie, which is a pity because 3) sleepwalking into a wall really hurts.

This was the first time that I sleepwalked, or at least the first time that I did it so badly that I ran into something. But sleep had long been a less-than-peaceful part of my life. As a child, I often fell asleep with my eyes open, a condition that unnerved my parents and spooked friends at sleepovers. When I was in college, I unknowingly entertained my roommates while I was sleeping by sitting up and yelling things like “Man the barricades, the bacon is coming!” Now, as a married adult, my wife is treated to a nightly show that can include talking, singing, laughing, humming, giggling, grunting, bouncing, and kicking. She handles all of this by putting in earplugs after we say good night and moving to the far side of our oversized bed, a purchase she insisted on after being on the receiving end of one well-placed kick.

The talking and kicking she could deal with. But she put her foot down once I became mobile. After a few days of limping around and hoping no one would ask why, I found myself in a sleep lab at a New York hospital. The room was decorated like a hotel room in Florida, complete with a pink watercolor painting of a palm tree hanging above what at first glance looked like a headboard. A deeper inspection revealed that it was a piece of wood bolted to the wall above a standard-issue hospital bed. The walls were painted cream, and one of the last working television-VCR combinations sat on top of a desk in the corner. Medical equipment shared space with a white beach shell on a wooden nightstand.

My brain waves were to be recorded as I slept that night so that a neurologist could see what was going on. To round the picture out, my heartbeat, breathing rate, limb movements, body temperature, and jaw pressure would be captured as well. Cue the electrodes, sixteen in all, attached to sites ranging from my temples to my ankles. A technician slathered each spot on my head with sticky white goo, manipulating my hair into what could be called the Contemporary Einstein. She taped a forked monitor inside my nostrils, glued oval sensors to each of my cheeks, and bound what appeared to be a glowing red clothespin to my index finger. A plastic blue box heavy with wires running in and out of it hung around my neck. The process of putting all of this on my body took forty-five minutes. After she finished, the technician told me that she would be in a room down the hall watching me via a video camera fixed on the ceiling and pointed at the bed. “Try to sleep normally,” she said as she closed the door. If she was aware of the irony, she didn’t show it.

I tried to get comfortable. After a few minutes, I turned to my right side. Suddenly, a voice calling out from a pair of hidden speakers above the headboard echoed in the small room. “Sir, you cannot sleep on your side. You must stay on your back,” the technician said. A blinking red light on the ceiling revealed the camera that gave me away. I lay there like a board, wondering when this would be over. That night, I dreamt that I was in a prison.

A few days later, I sat in the office of the neurologist who had ordered the study, a long, slender man whose oversized glasses made his face look too small for his body. He rustled through the more than three hundred pages of data collected from my night in the sleep lab, past charts showing my brain waves spiking and falling like a boom and bust stock market. His hands settled on the summary he was looking for. He studied it quietly for a few minutes. Finally, he spoke.

“Well, you certainly kick a lot.”

I waited, hoping there was more to come from a test that set my health insurance company back a couple-thousand dollars.

“But beyond that, I’m not sure what we can do for you,” he continued. “Your breathing is normal, so you don’t have sleep apnea. You’re not having seizures in your sleep. You awaken easily, that’s clear, but that’s not really a medical problem. I could give you a sleeping pill, but frankly I’m not sure that it’s going to help.”

“Do I have restless leg syndrome?” I asked, suddenly feeling like an actor in one of those commercials that tell you to ask your doctor whether a medication is right for you.

“Do your legs feel uncomfortable if you don’t kick them?”

“Not really,” I replied.

“Then it’s not restless leg. It may be a mild case of periodic limb movement disorder, but there’s not much we can do for that.”

I liked the sound of the word
mild
. “So what should I do?” I asked.

“I’m going to be honest with you. There’s a lot that we know about sleep, but there’s a lot we don’t know. If the sleepwalking continues, let’s try some sedatives. But I don’t want you to start taking drugs that you don’t need. Try to cut down on your stress and see what happens.”

I left the appointment with the vague feeling that I had been tricked. I expected science to have as thorough an understanding of sleep as it does of digestion, or any other bodily function that we can’t live without. Instead I heard a doctor’s disconcerting admission that he didn’t know what was going on or how to stop it. It was as if my body had sleepwalked itself past the frontier.

Sleep wasn’t something that we were supposed to worry about in the first years of the twenty-first century. There were bigger issues requiring attention. Technology was making the world smaller by the day, the global economy blurred the lines between one day and the next, and daily life was filled with questions over what was considered normal. Many people never gave sleep much thought, and if they did, considered it nothing more than an elegant on/off switch that the body flips when it needs to take a break from its overscheduled life. Sure, we would probably like to get more of it, and yes, we may have had a weird dream or two lately, but beyond that, the importance of sleep likely hovers somewhere near that of flossing in most of our lives: something we are supposed to do more often but don’t.

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. My neurologist wasn’t kidding when he said there was 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.

Consider, for a moment, how absurd the whole idea of falling asleep is in a world of finite resources where living things resort to eating each other to survive. A sleeping animal must lie still for long stretches at a time, all but inviting predators to make it dinner (and not in a good way). Yet whatever sleep does is so important that evolution goes out of its way to make it possible. A dolphin, for instance, will sleep with half of its brain awake at a time, giving it the ability to surface for air and be on the lookout for predators while the other half is presumably dreaming. Birds, too, have adapted the ability to decide whether to put half of their brain to sleep or the whole thing. Imagine a flock of ducks sleeping at the edge of a lake. The birds at the periphery of the group will likely be sleeping with one-half of their brain awake and aware of their surroundings, keeping watch while their companions in the middle zonk out completely.

You would think, then, that sleep is a luxury that increases as you move up the food chain, and that sharper claws would equal longer dreams. But no. Lions and gerbils sleep about thirteen hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about fifteen hours. At the other end of the spectrum, elephants typically sleep three and a half hours at a time, which seems lavish compared to the hour and a half of shut-eye that the average giraffe gets each night.

The need to sleep interferes with other more biologically pressing needs, such as procreating, finding and gathering food, building shelter, and anything else you might do to ensure that your genetic line lives on. Sleep is so important, yet so poorly understood, that it led one biologist to say, “If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made.” That function is still a mystery. It would be nice to say that sleep is nothing more than the time when a body rests, but that wouldn’t be quite right either. You can relax in a hammock on a beach all day long if you want to, but after about twenty hours you will be in pretty bad shape if you don’t fall asleep and stay that way for a while. Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

The only thing stranger than the need to sleep is what happens when it is ignored. In 1965, a San Diego high school student named Randy Gardner stayed awake continuously for 264 hours, an eleven-day feat documented by a team of researchers from Stanford University who happened to read about his attempt beforehand in the local newspaper. For the first day or so, Gardner was able to remain awake without any prompting. But things went south quickly. He soon lost the ability to add simple numbers in his head. He then became increasingly paranoid, asking those who had promised to help him stay up why they were treating him so badly. When he finally went to bed, he slept for nearly fifteen hours straight. And yet a few weeks later, he was as good as new. To this day, he continues to be a minor celebrity in Japan.

Gardner experienced a happier ending than most subjects of sleep deprivation experiments. In the 1980s, researchers at the University of Chicago decided to find out what happens when an animal is deprived of sleep for a long period of time. In but one of the many odd tests you will find in the history of sleep research, these scientists forced rats to stay awake by placing them on a tiny platform suspended over cold water. The platform was balanced so that it would remain level only if a rat kept moving. If a rat fell asleep, it would tumble into the water and be forced to swim back to safety (or drown, an option that the researchers seemed strangely blasé about).

Fast-forward to two weeks later. All of the rats were dead. This confused the researchers, though they had a few hints that something bad was going to happen. As the rats went longer and longer without sleep, their bodies began to self-destruct. They developed strange spots and festering sores that didn’t heal, their fur started to fall out in large clumps, and they lost weight no matter how much food they ate. So the researchers decided to perform autopsies, and lo and behold they found nothing wrong with the animals’ organs that would lead them to failing so suddenly. This mystery gnawed at scientists so much that twenty years later, another team decided to do the exact same experiment, but with better instruments. This time, they thought, they will find out what happens inside of a rat’s body during sleep deprivation that ultimately leads to its death. Again the rats stayed awake for more than two weeks, and again they died after developing gnarly sores. But just like their peers in Chicago years earlier, the research team could find no clear reason why the rats were keeling over. The lack of sleep itself looked to be the killer. The best guess was that staying awake for so long drained the animal’s system and made it lose the ability to regulate its body temperature.

Humans who are kept awake for too long start to show some of the same signs as those hapless rats. For obvious reasons, no one has conducted any scientific research into whether it is possible for a person to die from extreme sleep deprivation. The closest we have come are short-term sleep deprivation studies conducted by the government, with subjects participating voluntarily or not. CIA interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, for instance, subjected dozens of enemy combatants to sleep deprivation by chaining them together and forcing them to stand for more than a day at a time. Justice Department officials later wrote in a memo that “surprisingly, little seemed to go wrong with the subjects physically.”

BOOK: Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep
2.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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