Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep

David K. Randall opens Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep with a harrowing recollection of sleepwalking into a wall and crashing painfully to the floor of his New York apartment. The sleepwalking episode, his first, led him to a neurologist, whose bland prescription (“Try to cut down on your stress and see what happens”) jolted the Reuters reporter. Randall left the doctor’s office feeling as if he’d tripped over “one of the dirty little secrets of science” — the fact that we still know so little about sleep.

After reading his book you will know a lot more, although, as when you recall the details of a dream in the light of morning, you might not be sure what it all adds up to. Randall is an amiable guide through topics that range from the practical (tips on achieving a good night’s rest) to the extreme (a murderer’s acquittal after using sleepwalking as a defense), but he has opted for breadth — and, here and there, an easy joke — over depth. Still, even if Dreamland reads like several magazine articles strung together, there is much in the book that fascinates.

Particularly intriguing is recent research indicating that before the advent of the light bulb, sleep was divided into two blocks. The “first sleep” lasted from sundown until after midnight; an hour or so later, people would have a “second sleep” that lasted until morning. “The time between the two bouts of sleep was a natural and expected part of the night and, depending on your needs, was spent praying, reading, contemplating your dreams, urinating, or having sex,” Randall writes. “The last one was perhaps the most popular.” Anthropologists studying cultures without artificial light and psychologists depriving subjects of electricity have suggested that our bodies will revert to this segmented sleep pattern if given the chance.

Another compelling chapter deals with the study of dreams, divided between Freudians, who see them as coded projections of the dreamer’s desires, and more contemporary researchers, who see them as straightforward reflections of the dreamer’s anxieties. Recent research has shown that dreaming can also be productive, enhancing learning and creativity. A study of college students playing the video game Tetris showed that those who dreamed about the game demonstrated improved performance, as if the brain, during sleep, continued to work out the game’s puzzles. (Reading that, I was reminded of my own frequent Tetris dreams in college, which perhaps accounted for my killer gameplay, though no other obvious benefits manifested.)

Because we all sleep, we can all relate in some way to Dreamland, measuring our own experience against the material in the book. In a chapter on insomniacs, Randall describes the outsize significance they ascribe to sleep. “In the inverted logic of the condition, sleep is extremely important to someone with insomnia,” he writes. “Therefore, the person with insomnia can’t get sleep.” As an occasional sufferer myself, this bedeviling formulation felt true to me, as did one of Randall’s more provocative statements: “How you slept last night probably has a bigger impact on your life than what you decide to eat, how much money you make, or where you live.” My husband, on the other hand, who sails by on six hours a night and is out cold the moment his head hits the pillow, was more dismissive of that suggestion. It was harder for him to dispute the author’s contention that “women not only are far less likely to snore than men but also tend to be lighter sleepers.” For some of us, sleeping isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always fair.