"Sleep is So Easy to Put Off": A Conversation with David K. Randall

Dear Reader,

I’m incredibly fortunate: I can sleep anywhere, and once asleep, stay asleep. But I know what I’m like after the rare night that I haven’t slept, when my synapses refuse to fire in sequence — and no amount of coffee will help. (Shudder.)

While scientists still don’t fully understand why we need to sleep, let alone what sleep does for us, David K. Randall’s investigation into the research behind sleep science, Dreamland, is an engrossing and illuminating read – and one that the Discover selection committee members and I were talking about for weeks.

David discusses his inspiration for writing Dreamland, what scientists are just now learning about sleep, and how dreaming fits into the science of sleep, among other things with Discover Great New Writers.

Why did you write this book?

I’ve long talked in my sleep, which, thanks to earplugs, is something my wife has come to accept. Then I started sleepwalking. After I woke up on the floor of our hallway after I crashed into a wall in the middle of the night, I decided it was time to ask my doctor whether there was anything I could do to make sleep a little less eventful. He confessed that he didn’t know much about sleep and couldn’t help me. That’s when I decided to investigate the field myself. Here was a third of my life that was passing by unexamined, yet was clearly affecting me in an obvious, painful way.

What are some ways that sleep affects us?

While sleep sometimes just seems like an elegant on-off switch that the body flips each night, scientists are only now sorting out what, exactly, sleep does for our bodies and our brains. It turns out that sleep influences nearly every aspect of the time we spend awake. Health, sex, relationships, creativity, our ability to learn – all of those things that really make us who we are – all depend in large part on what happens when we lay our heads on the pillow each night.  It’s pretty remarkable for something that’s as simple as closing your eyes.

 As a result, you’re starting to see a new respect for sleep in places that you might not expect. The U.S. military, for instance, is now acutely aware of how sleep deprivation is a leading cause of friendly fire, and is taking steps to help fatigued soldiers make better decisions. And in both professional and Olympic sports, some coaches now believe that managing an athlete’s sleep schedule is one of the last untapped advantages left in the game. It turns out that proving at your highest level requires sleeping well, both for the physical aspects of recovery and the mental challenges of competition.

If sleep is so important, then why do so many people have such trouble with it?

I think there are two main reasons why. The first is basic biology. Our bodies are built for a time before the invention of electric lights, when the sun pretty much ran the show. As a result, our brains perceive bright lights at night – especially the bluish lights from television sets or computer screens – as a little bit of sunlight, and quickly come to the conclusion that it’s still daytime and we need to stay awake. Breaking that cycle of light exposure is often one of the first things that doctors tell patients who suffer from insomnia.

The second reason is more social. Sleep is so easy to put off, ignore or dose with coffee that we’ve become used so used to dealing with the consequences that we may not even recognize them. There’s not the same emphasis on sleep as there is for eating right or exercising, which are obviously important but arguably less so than sleeping well.

Does the science of sleep include the science of dreaming?

Dreams make up this strange place in the field of sleep research. While the chance to interpret dreams was what drew many of the pioneers of the field into it in the first place, the discovery that rapid eye movement sleep, and by extension dreams, were so widespread in nature made human dreams seem less interesting by comparison. One researcher I spoke with who has done a lot of compelling research into dreams said that he continues to get odd glances from fellow professors because dreaming is considered a little too New-Agey and not entirely respectable.

I was initially skeptical that dreams mattered in any way. But I’m willing to admit I was wrong. Some researchers see dreams as mini-dress rehearsals for life that allow our brains to experience and react to scary situations. And dreaming might be one way our brains integrate new information or skills with what we already know, a crucial step for both creativity and problem-solving.

What was the strangest thing you learned in your research?

Many things about sleep surprised me when I first encountered them. But the most bizarre thing has to be the growing number of cases in which people claim to be sleeping at the time they committed violent acts like killing someone. In a landmark case in Canada, for instance, a man drove 14 miles to his in-laws house one night and stabbed his mother-in-law to death and nearly killed his father in law. Yet he was acquitted after his lawyers convinced a jury it was all a violent sleepwalking episode. The case really came down to one issue: if he was truly sleepwalking, then he couldn’t be held accountable for something his body did without what we would consider conscious thought.

 The issue of the legal limits of consciousness continues to pop up in cases worldwide. Scientists, law enforcement personnel and attorneys are all struggling to come up with hard and fast rules of defining consciousness – and, by extension, guilt or innocence – when we’re learning that there are many more options than simply “awake” or “asleep”.

This is really the sum of all fears for someone who is a sleepwalker. After I learned about violent sleepwalking, which is a part of a condition called parasomnias, I was tempted to sleep on the couch out of the fear that I would accidentally hurt my wife while I was sleeping.  But luckily, the most violent thing I’ve done in my sleep is kick. Other people with parasomnias are dangers to themselves. Some patients I’ve spoken with have taken to tying themselves to their beds each night after doing things like jumping out of second-story windows while they were sleeping. Their biggest fear is that they will accidentally commit suicide.

Now that you’ve written this book, is your own sleep better? Do you still sleepwalk?

I haven’t run into any more walls, thankfully. But my sleepwalking hasn’t entirely gone away. Just last month, I was booked on a very early flight out of New York, where I live. I was nervous about getting to the airport on time when I went to bed the night before, and remember waking up in the middle of the night standing in front of my closet, where I presumably was about to get my luggage.

You do pick up things along the way when you work on a book like this. I definitely think I sleep better now than I used to. It’s not an advice book by any means, but hopefully there’s enough there that someone can apply to his or her own life. 

Who have you discovered lately?

Perhaps because I work as a journalist, I naturally tend to veer towards non-fiction. Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, about the assassination of President Garfield, was one of those great, character-driven non-fiction narratives that I can’t get enough of.

I’ve been branching out more into fiction lately, too. My wife recently introduced me to Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise. It’s an incredible book with an incredible back story: written during World War II by a French writer who died in a concentration camp, the manuscript was discovered by her daughters sixty years later. But even without that as background, it’s amazing how she seamlessly weaves her characters’ lives together as they first flee Paris, and then live in a rural village during the German occupation. My other recent discovery was Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, whose style of dark comedy reminds me of the great Joseph Heller.

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.