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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

File 5 B Counting Sheep - A Review

Dreaming of a peaceful night's sleep
Paul Martin takes a literary look at the science behind the pleasures of sleep and dreams in Counting Sheep

Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams
by Paul Martin
(Flamingo, £7.99)

Minnesota is a surprisingly barbaric place. Do you know why? School starts there at 7.30 in the morning. One feels like marching in and enforcing some kind of regime change. In one district of this hell-hole, scientists allowed teenagers an extra hour of sleep. They started feeling less sleepy and depressed during the day, had fewer days off sick, were more punctual, and were also taught by happier teachers.

You may think that this is hardly an astonishing conclusion to reach, and you would be right, but the fact remains that there are an awful lot of people out there who think that sleep is somehow wrong.

As Paul Martin puts it: "The puritans and dull, workaholic sleep-deniers of this world would have us believe that sleep squanders our precious time that should instead be spent in fruitful labour... Many annoying aphorisms, proverbs and sayings have been coined with the naked intention of making us feel guilty about sleeping."

Mrs Thatcher never slept for very long, or so she claimed. It certainly helps explain her behaviour over the past decade or so. Edison wondered aloud whether sleep was necessary at all; he claimed never to need it. This was an outright fib. He had a camp bed near his laboratory and cat-napped enough to make regular sleep unnecessary. On top of which, the frequent hypnagogic states he entered - that's the half-sleep where you mumble or visualise a surrealist stream - often helped inspire his inventions.

Churchill had the right idea about bed and sleep. Never get out of it before noon, and sleep during the day "and no half-way measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That's what I always do".

Dr Johnson said publicly that no one who slept late would amount to anything, but privately conceded that he didn't often rise before noon. The list is more or less endless. People who rise early and with a song on their lips are barely to be counted as human. The writer of this column, incidentally, is scarcely human until about 12.30pm, and is best avoided until at least then.

You learn all this - apart from that last bit - from this excellent book. Martin writes with more panache than we expect from scientists even these days, when it seems that a snappy prose style is as much an element of their training as the periodic table (cf the somewhat leaden efforts of many contemporary novelists). You will learn about the effects of sleep deprivation (madness and death, in a nutshell), what yawning is all about and narcolepsy, the alarming condition whereby people suddenly fall asleep in the middle of doing something else (often sex); researchers at Stanford have been breeding narcoleptic dogs to uncover the mystery, and would appear to be getting somewhere.

The book is particularly good on dreams, and generous with its commendation of scientists who worked in eras without access to ECGs, PET scanners and other machines that go ping. The Marquis de Saint-Denys wrote comprehensively about dreams in the mid-19th century and pioneered research into lucid dreaming, that state whereby you can influence the content of your dreams. The good news is that almost anyone can do it, and the first step is being told that it can be done.

Martin assesses the theories of Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison, whose idea of overlapping memory storage in the brain is plausible, but whose notion of dreaming as getting rid of unneeded or unwanted information - reverse learning - "is not wholly convincing". Still, Martin quotes Thomas Nashe, who in his 1594 Terrors of the Night wrote that "a dream is nothing else but a bubbling froth or scum of the fancy... you must give a wounded man leave to groan while he is in dressing. Dreaming is no other than groaning, while sleep our surgeon hath us in cure."

And that's one of the nicest things about Martin's book: it is as keen on literature as it is on science. Most quoted writer: Shakespeare. Followed by Dickens. I am surprised not to see "myoclonic jerk" in the index, but you can't have everything.

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