The Secrets of Sleep

Jerome Groopman in The New Yorker:

SleepSleep, according to the Sunday Style section of the Times, is a new status symbol, a sign of prosperity and control in a frenetic world. And, as if to confirm that sleep science is an important, even trendy field, this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine went to three researchers who deciphered the genes responsible for regulating our circadian rhythms. Still, although we may know more about sleep than ever before, it remains one of the most enigmatic phenomena in our daily lives. “Why do all forms of life, from plants, insects, sea creatures, amphibians and birds to mammals, need rest or sleep?” Meir Kryger asks in his new book, “The Mystery of Sleep” (Yale). Kryger, a professor at Yale Medical School, is a leader in the field of sleep medicine, and has treated more than thirty thousand patients with sleep problems during a career that spans four decades. He draws on this voluminous clinical experience in his book, which is an authoritative and accessible survey of what is known, what is believed, and what is still obscure about normal patterns of sleep and the conditions that disrupt it. As he readily admits, “No one has been able to declare with certainty why all life forms need sleep.”

…Reiss writes that his book’s “guiding spirit and lead witness” is Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau suffered from insomnia, and his retreat, in 1845, to a simple cabin at Walden Pond was, in part, driven by a desperate need for rest. Thoreau attributed his nightly struggles to the fact that railroads and other industrial changes had disturbed the natural environment around Concord. Reiss believes that we are victims of “the same environmentally devastating mind-set that Thoreau decried: an attitude of dominion over nature (including our own bodies) through technology and consumerism.” As the opposite of Thoreau, emblematic of everything he was reacting against, Reiss gives us Honoré de Balzac, who, while Thoreau was in Walden, was fuelling his writing with twenty to fifty cups of coffee a day, often on an empty stomach. Balzac believed that, with caffeine, “sparks shoot all the way to the brain,” and “forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink.” Balzac typically wrote between fourteen and sixteen hours a day for two decades, producing sixteen volumes of “La Comédie Humaine” within six years. Thoreau rejected coffee as an artificial stimulant and suggested that communion with nature offered a superior high: “Who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?”

More here.