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'Dreamland': Open Your Eyes To The Science Of Sleep

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Step, if you will, into my bedroom at night. (Don't worry, this is a PG-rated invitation.) At first, all is tranquil: My husband and I, exhausted by our day's labors, slumber, comatose, in our double bed. But, somewhere around 2 a.m., things begin to go bump in the night. My husband's body starts twitching, like Frankenstein's monster receiving his first animating shocks of electricity. Thrashing about, he'll kick me and steal the covers. In his dreams, he's always fighting or being chased; one night he said he dreamt Dick Cheney was gaining on him.

Meanwhile, I'm not a completely innocent bystander; I'm told I sometimes snore, loudly. And then there's the dog, who starts out the night curled at the bottom of the bed, but by dawn has usually crept up to my pillow and snuggled atop my head. She snores, too ... and farts.

Our rock 'em, sock 'em nightly routine, however, appears tame compared with David K. Randall's nocturnal adventures. As he describes in his new book, Dreamland, Randall awoke one night to find himself collapsed in the hallway outside his bedroom, howling in pain because he'd sleepwalked straight into a wall. But Randall's after-midnight mishaps are nothing compared with the accounts in his book of people who've driven cars, committed sexual assault and even murder, all while, supposedly, sound asleep.

Dreamland is a lively overview of recent research into sleep, the activity that occupies nearly a third of our lives, yet whose secrets continue to mystify scientists and laypeople alike. Randall is a reporter at Reuters. His chapters read like magazine articles, and his style sometimes veers toward the glib. But, those flaws noted, Randall's accounts of, among other things, new discoveries about insomnia, the burgeoning business of "fatigue management," and the suggested links between exposure to artificial light and higher rates of diseases like breast cancer among night shift workers are as stimulating as a double shot of espresso.

One particularly fascinating sleep fact that Randall reports is that the sleep rhythms of the human brain have fundamentally changed over the centuries. Medieval literary texts, medical manuscripts and tales make reference to a mysterious "first sleep" and "second sleep." The "first sleep" began shortly after sundown and lasted until after midnight. When people woke up, they would pray, read, have sex, whatever. The "second sleep" then lasted until sunup. In experiments, researchers have found that when people live solely by natural light, they revert back to this ancient "segmented sleep" pattern and that, chemically, the body in that interval between first and second sleep is "in a state equivalent to what you might feel after spending a day at the spa." It seems that, thanks to the light bulb, the entire industrialized world is sleeping unnaturally.

Another eye-opener in Randall's book is the chapter on dream research. The camps are split between Freudians, who view dreams as encoded messages from the unconscious, and pragmatists, who regard dreams as a kind of organic byproduct of deep REM sleep. In that latter group are contemporary researchers who've discovered that the average dream tends to be unhappy, anxious and even violent, hence my husband's nightly thrashings.

Researchers, though, are also finding that there's a big payoff to these pillow-time hallucinations. Our dreaming brains consolidate information and develop innovative solutions to our waking problems. Randall tells a story about how, in 1964, the champion golfer Jack Nicklaus was suffering an inexplicable slump. Then, a few nights before he was scheduled to play the British Open, he had a dream in which he held his golf club slightly differently. When he woke up, Nicklaus ran out to the golf course and gave the dream grip a try. Sure enough, he was back in business.

I'm partial to any research that recommends taking a Dagwood nap in response to life's dilemmas. Ironically, though, Dreamland is not a book to read before bedtime. As Randall rightly says, "the more you know about sleep, the more its strangeness unnerves you."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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