Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

The Science and Culture of Sleeping and Dreaming

The Lancet  May 26, 2007

 

For many years, my grandfather has been baking up a storm. His repertoire is focused on chocolate chip cookies, lemon squares, and rugelach—an eastern European Jewish pastry filled with raisins and nuts, that, in my grandfather's labour-intensive process, takes 3 hours to prepare. For my grandfather, it is time well spent. Baking is something he took up in his 70s, when, like many older people, he found that he'd stopped sleeping through the night. The lack of sleep as a natural part of ageing does not feature in Schlaf & Traum (Sleeping & Dreaming), a new exhibition at the German Museum of Hygiene in Dresden, Germany, but in other respects, the exhibition is a fairly comprehensive natural and cultural history of sleep and dreams.

Alongside exhibits about the biomedical and neurological nature of this subject, the show explores diverse cultural conceptions of sleep and dreams. In the current work-fixated age, executives of industry and finance boast of their lack of sleep, factory work hours often run round the global clock, and internet connections follow us to home and leisure time. “We want to sleep less because we have so much we want to do”, said Saskia Weiss, one of the exhibition's curators. But, as Schlaf & Traum makes clear, sleep deprivation is dangerous. “Dead Tired”, the opening section of the show, looks at early laboratory experiments on people kept awake for days, the way sleep deprivation contributed to major industrial accidents, and how preventing people from sleeping is used as a modern method of torture.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that researchers were first able to document that the brain was not dormant during sleep, as was commonly assumed, but in fact was quite active. In the 1920s, the psychiatrist Hans Berger developed an electroencephalography machine that could measure brain activity. 8 hours of sleep used up 300 metres' worth of paper. By the 1950s, US scientists in Chicago had discovered the phenomenon of rapid eye movement, or REM. But hard science can only tell us so much. Even the words sleeping and dreaming are loaded with meaning. The sons of the Greek goddess Night were Hypnos (sleep) and Thanatos (death), suggesting that the Greeks saw sleep as close to death. Another of Night's children, Morpheus, the inspiration for the name of the narcotic drug morphine, was the god of dreams.

Dreams, of course, can also be nightmares. Nordic folklore held that they stemmed from the work of Dark Elves, thus, the German word for nightmare, albtraum. The iconic artistic representation of this was a painting, The Night Mare, by the 18th-century Swiss-English artist Johann Hennrick Fuesli, which depicts a small hunchbacked creature perched atop the chest of an unconscious, semi-clothed woman. Off to the side, a horse peaks an inquiring head through the curtains.

What Sigmund Freud made of that curious equine proboscis, the exhibition does not tell us. But one of the highlights of the show, for me, was one of the original drawings by the Wolf Man, the pseudonym that Freud gave to Sergei Pankejeff, whose dreams of a pack of white wolves on the branches of a tree were the basis of some of Freud's most important theories. The exhibition's other nods to the anxious underpinnings of dreams include an Edvard Munch print and the Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali 1929 free association film Un Chien Andalou, which famously features a slit eye ball and ants running amok from within a human hand.

The “Thieves of Sleep,” such as street noise and bedbugs, are featured in Schlaf & Traum as are some of the social factors that influence where people choose to sleep. An 1868 picture documents Berlin police rousing indigent men asleep in a public park, and a lithograph by the German Expressionist Käthe Kollwitz depicts the deprivations of homelessness on a destitute family. Among the contemporary representations are a portable homeless shelter—more or less a grocery cart outfitted with a steel sleeping tube—and photographic portraits of factory and service labourers who work the night shift.

The Japanese, apparently, recognise short naps as an acceptable part of the work day, and publicly available street-side sleeping capsules are available. Even the Americans are now giving a nod to the importance of sleep: “Taking a nap could turn out to be an important weapon in the fight against coronary mortality”, a Harvard researcher recently told The Washington Post. Perhaps most beneficially, the exhibition contains some wisdom from an 1878 British magazine's suggestions for outwitting nightmares: too much rich food and alcohol late at night is a sure path to bad dreams; the best strategy for a peaceful slumber, it advises, is the bedtime reading of Bradshaw's Railway Guide.

 

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