Mind Matters — To Sleep, Perchance To Dream

I remember acing a paper in a graduate psychology course, only to fumble miserably in the oral exam that covered the same material my paper had. Why? Well, when I wrote the paper I was well-rested and thereby, creative. However, being so anxious about the oral exam, I stayed up all night “studying.” The next day I could hardly understand my professor’s questions, let alone answer him coherently. Moral of my story? Sleep is a necessary endeavor for promoting clarity and creativity. And sleepless study is not.

So it is that my ears perked up and my eyes didn’t close when I heard David K. Randall be interviewed recently. After that, I acquired his book, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep.

Through this book, he hopes readers “will understand that sleep is what helps us become the people we want to be.” He notes how this is the part of life that we may “overlook, ignore, or dose with coffee, yet study after study has shown that sleep is a key part of what we consider the best part of us: creativity, intelligence, health, … performance … how we relate to loved ones.”

Randall began to delve into the history of sleep after he rammed into a wall while sleepwalking. Dissatisfied with the books he found on the theme of sleep, he decided to write his own. What he discovers in his waking adventure is not only that electric lights have profoundly changed our sleep patterns, but also that there are a growing number of cases in which people claim to have been unconsciously sleepwalking while committing violent crimes.

A sleepwalker himself, Randall fears, along with other sleepwalkers he has spoken with, what he could possibly do besides bump into a wall in the middle of night.

Beyond the issue of sleepwalking, Randall gleans other facts. Prior to electricity, during pre-industrial times, humans slept for several hours after sundown, then would awaken around midnight for an hour or so, and then return to sleep until dawn. This appears to be our natural pattern sans artificial lighting, according to the research.

Also, Randall discovered that even though couples like to sleep in the same bed, sleeping in separate beds is more conducive to restful sleep, even when we believe otherwise. Nevertheless, it appears that “men tend to sleep better next to their partners” than do women. Perhaps that is because men snore more? Randall quips, “In one of nature’s dark jokes, women not only are far less likely to snore than men but also tend to be lighter sleepers. The result is a mighty farce that is one reason wives also suffer from insomnia more often than their husbands.”

There is even found to be a link between a woman’s sleep quality and marital satisfaction. Randall interviewed Wendy Troxel, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies relationship and marriage. She found that happy marriages were generally “healthier” marriages and that sleep quality was an important factor—especially the woman’s sleep.

According to Troxel’s studies, couples felt more positive in their conversations and interviews when the woman slept well. Troxel hypothesizes that stereotypically women drive the emotional climate of the relationship, and therefore, may be more expressive of their distress, which in turn affects the spouse. (Troxel apparently did not research gay realtionships/marriages.)

What affects us all regarding our sleep is the fact that, when it comes to integrating new information and solving a vexing problem, sleep is our ally. Don’t take an oral exam without it!

However, one caveat I do have about Dreamland is Randall’s unsatisfactory coverage of dreams themselves. As a Jungian-oriented psychologist, I take dreams quite seriously. I was very disappointed that Randall’s chapter on dreams lacked substance and depth. Otherwise, his little book is great for that midnight hour when sleepers awake!