These days it’s easy to dose a bad night’s sleep the day after with coffee or energy supplements. But research now reveals that nightly eight hours might affect more than just whether we feel drowsy during an afternoon meeting. Sleep can affect how much money we make, what we eat and where we live.
That’s what journalist David Randall discovered in researching “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep” (Norton, $25.95), which explores the little-understood world of sleep, a science that many believe is on the cusp of its golden age.
Randall says he was inspired to write the book after he started sleepwalking and went to a doctor for help. “Science doesn’t know much about sleep,” Randall’s doctor said. His advice: Take it easy and hope it doesn’t happen again.
“People forget about sleep because they think it’s this break from life, this elegant on-off switch,” Randall says.
He spoke by phone from New York; this is an edited version of the conversation.
Why is sleep such a little-understood science?
We still don’t really know what (the evolutionary purpose) of sleep is. It’s not just rest, because you can rest in a hammock all day long, but after about 24 hours, you’re going to be in bad shape.
That’s one reason why sleep scientists feel like they’re in the golden age of this science. Sleep scientists only discovered REM sleep in the late ’50s, early ’60s. Before that, most scientists and most doctors thought their responsibilities ended as soon as you fell asleep. Now there are over 75 sleep disorders recognized.
How does the culture of sleep differ around the world?
One of the problems several multinational companies have when they open offices in China, is that people there still tend to have an afternoon nap. They might fall asleep at their desks. An American manager thinks: “This guy is sleeping at work, what’s going on?” It’s a bigger cultural issue. In Spain there are still siestas, but in 2008 the government severely curtailed them for government workers. A lot of it is cultural. You don’t want to give up the natural rhythm of life.
There’s this growing industry around fatigue management — money being poured into energy drinks, caffeine pills and sleep aids. What do you make of this?
There are two parts to it. There’s the stimulant side of it, which is the caffeine and coffee drinks — that part is more the reflection of the times. It’s so much easier just to forget about sleep, it doesn’t necessarily have a really high importance for most people.
The other side is the fatigue management, and that’s growing. Researchers, businesses and governments are realizing that especially for people who have to make important decisions again and again, some really bad things can happen if you have sleep-deprived people.
In the book I talk about this big fire at Texas City. A refinery that made jet fuel blew up, and it was a terrible accident.
The report afterward tended to pin much of the blame on fatigue. That’s what helped some of these big, global oil companies realize we need to put fatigue-management systems in place.
It’s not an altruistic thing. We’re realizing that these accidents are leading to a loss of money.