Pulling Back The Covers On 'Strange Science Of Sleep'
We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, but know very little about what happens once we shut our eyes and drift off.
David Randall has had trouble sleeping for most of his life. One particularly bad night inspired him to learn everything he could about the process.
"I woke up in the middle of the night with the scary and strange realization that I was on my back in the middle of the hallway with a searing pain in my knee," he tells NPR's Lynn Neary. "I ... quickly put together that I had been sleepwalking, and I ran myself into the wall."
He went to the doctor, eager to learn the cause of his sleepwalking and what he could do to prevent it. Instead, Randall left with little clarity.
"He said, 'You know, I have to be honest; there's a lot we know about sleep, but there's a lot that we don't know. So just try to take it easy.'"
Randall was inspired to embark on a quest to understand the science of sleep. He has since been diagnosed with non-REM arousal parasomnia, a disruptive sleep disorder that can cause night terrors and sleepwalking.
In his book Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, he presents what he's learned about sleep deprivation, dream interpretation and the explanations for his own bizarre sleeping habits.
On his oddest sleep story
"I guess my most interesting story would be, I was staying with some friends in an apartment, and in my dream, I guess I would describe it as like an Iraqi insurgent kicked in the door and shot an RPG at me. And then in my dream I ran out the door, and when I woke, I was in the parking lot in my underwear, screaming, and everybody in the apartment complex was kind of staring out their window and doors, looking at me. ...
"I've also experienced night terrors for my entire life. ... For the longest time, I didn't remember them, and so I'd sort of just come to, and I'd be really scared, and you know, almost hyperventilating, breathing really heavily, an intense feeling of shame, I guess, for some reason ... In that particular instance it was just very embarrassing ... It takes a little while to transition from the dream back into real life."
On the history of sleep research
"Despite something that we've done, you know, since the dawn of humanity, sleep wasn't really something scientists looked at until the last 50 or 60 years. Until ... about 1950 or so, most sleep doctors or most doctors in general thought, you know, once a patient fell asleep, his or her responsibility is over; they're sleeping, nothing could be going on.
"The discovery of REM sleep, rapid eye movement sleep, in the mid-'50s kind of changed that. That's when scientists realized the brain is doing so much more than we ever thought possible. So there's more inquiry to be made. There's more avenues we need to go down ... Sleep researchers now basically think that they're in the golden age of their field."
On extreme cases of sleepwalking
"In the book, I talked about this famous case in Canada in the late '80s, where somebody — a man drove 14 miles to his in-laws' house ... he let himself in with his key, then he stabbed his mother-in-law to death and almost killed his father-in-law. And he drove directly to the police station afterwards.
"And he was acquitted. His lawyers were able to convince the jury that he had been sleepwalking the whole time, and part of the reason was they went through his family history, and his father and his grandfather, they would tell stories of ... waking up the next morning and seeing, you know, fried onions on the stove that hadn't been eaten, or waking up, you know ... his grandmother caught him trying to open up a window and jump out from a six-story building when he was completely asleep.
"So researchers are starting to realize that there's a lot more in between just waking up — being awake and being asleep than perhaps we give credit for."
On the quality of his sleep now
"I did get much better sleep ... I have a 2-month-old baby at home, so I am, ironically, am not sleeping all that much as I'm talking to all of you right now. The other night I woke up, and my wife woke up, too, and saw me ... holding my arms and swinging back and forth in front of our baby's bassinet, saying, 'I've got the baby, I've got the baby.' And ... thank God, the baby — our baby — was still in his bassinet. I was holding a pillow."
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary, in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. I don't know about you, but I like to sleep - a lot. Even if you're one of those people who doesn't like to spend much time snoozing, you still have to get some shuteye once in a while just to function. In fact, most of us spend a third of our lives slumbering.
But what do we really know about how or why we sleep? Reporter David Randall got curious about all that unexplored sleep time. He wanted to know what dreams really mean, why some people snore, why he sleepwalks. So he set out to learn everything he could about sleep.
The result is his new book "Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep." He joins us in a moment to discuss his findings, everything from why napping is a weapon of war to sleepwalking as a murder defense. Meanwhile, we want to know: What's your most interesting sleep story? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, we talk with author Sonia Nazario about her book "Enrique's Journey," a popular choice for college freshman reading programs. But first let's sleep. David Randall joins us now from our New York bureau. Wake up there, David.
DAVID RANDALL: Oh, I'm here.
NEARY: Oh good.
NEARY: Now I know you embarked on this study of sleep because of your own sleepwalking experience. So let's start out, that's where your book begins. Tell us what happened exactly.
RANDALL: Sure, it was a couple summers ago. I woke up in the middle of the night with the scary and strange realization that I was on my back in the middle of the hallway with a searing pain in my knee. And I, you know, quickly put together that I had been sleepwalking, and I ran myself into the wall. So I went to my doctor a couple days later, said, you know, this is what happened, I obviously don't want to do this again, can you help me out.
And he said, you know, I have to be honest, there's a lot we know about sleep, but there's a lot that we don't know. So just try to take it easy.
NEARY: That was it, huh?
RANDALL: Yeah, that's pretty much it.
NEARY: Was that the first time you had ever sleepwalked, by the way?
RANDALL: The first time that I know of. I've long had problems with my sleep. My wife tells me stories of me, you know, laughing or grunting or bouncing or talking and every other kind of behavior you can think of. So, you know, she puts earplugs in each night before we go to bed and kind of moves over to the far end, out of the kick zone, pretty much.
NEARY: So you decided that this made no sense that people didn't know more about sleep than they do. Is that it?
RANDALL: Exactly, and I wanted to find out why. It seems so simple. It seems like digestion or something else that we should just kind of know of. Sleep seems like it's just this, you know, elegant on/off switch that we flip when we need to go to bed or when we need to rest. But hearing that there's so much more to it that's unknown made me wonder what is out there.
So, you know, very selfishly, I thought I'm going to find out everything I can. And I looked, and I tried to find another book that would answer all these questions for me. I just couldn't find one. So I decided, you know, I need to do this for myself.
NEARY: As it turns out, I mean, there's a lot of sleep research going on that you discovered.
RANDALL: It is. Sleep researchers now basically think that they're in the golden age of their field. Despite something that we've done, you know, since the dawn of humanity, sleep wasn't really something scientists looked at until the last 50 or 60 years. Until about the mid- 19 - or probably about 1950 or so, most sleep doctors or most doctors in general thought, you know, once a patient feel asleep, his or her responsibility is over; they're sleeping, nothing could be going on.
The discovery of REM sleep, rapid eye movement sleep, in the mid-'50s kind of changed that. That's when scientists realized the brain is doing so much more than we ever thought possible. So there's more inquiry to be made. There's more avenues we need to go down.
NEARY: Is there an optimal amount of sleep?
RANDALL: Basically most sleep doctors will tell you that you need to be - you need to sleep for one hour for every two hours that you're going to be awake. So that gives us the rough eight hours of sleep. Some people need more; some people need less. Most people who say that they need less, you know, they could obviously, but they also might not realize the mistakes that they're making from sleep deprivation.
And it was only two or three years ago that researchers at U.C. San Francisco identified that there actually is a genetic mutation for some people who do - who really can sleep less, less than six hours a night, and not have any drawbacks in terms of health or ability.
NEARY: Well, something that's really interesting that you write about is the way our sleeping patterns have changed before and after electricity, really, I think is the big change, when, you know, there was a way of sleeping that just - you went to sleep when it got dark, and then in the middle of the night, there was this kind of hour-long moment of great - you call it this great hour where people would wake up for a little while and then go back to sleep again. Tell us more about that.
RANDALL: Exactly, it was - researchers basically found that somebody when they went to sleep, you know, before electric lights, you would fall asleep around 10 or so. Then you'd wake up, and between - that first time was called the first sleep. Then you'd wake up and spend an hour or so contemplating your dreams, you know, having sex, whatever, and then you'd go back to sleep for the next part of it.
And this popped up, and, you know, you can see it in "The Canterbury Tales," you can see it in all these other primers from Northern European, especially. Then, you know, this was only discovered in the mid-1980s, 1990s. At the same time, researchers decided: Hey, let's see what happens if we sequester somebody away from electric lights, see what the effect is.
And they found out that this exact same thing happens again. You know, for the first couple days of the study, people slept so much more, it was almost as if they were making up for all the lost sleep that they missed going to work too early or staying out too late.
And then you started seeing this pattern re-emerge. It was almost like their brains were exercising a muscle they never knew they had. And this - not only is it interesting that, you know, we sleep so much differently than perhaps our bodies are made to, it's interesting that no - few people know that this happens. So they might wake up at 2 a.m. and think hey, I didn't sleep straight six hours or straight eight hours like I wanted to, something must be wrong. So I'm going to turn to a medication. And they might be medicating something that's just a natural part of your body.
NEARY: You know, and also the other thing I wondered about that, you know, that way that people used to sleep where you describe them waking up for that hour, you know, they'd go to sleep when it got dark, wake up at around midnight, be awake for an hour and that it was supposed to be sort of a golden time, a really wonderful time.
And I thought, well, how do we know that, and how do we know - why do we now wake up, when we wake up in the middle of the night, tend to think of all the things that are wrong with our lives, you know?
NEARY: Why does that happen?
RANDALL: Well, we know that people enjoyed it for two separate reasons. One, there's evidence. You know, people will talk about - they'd write journal entries about the time they spent in the middle of the night contemplating their dreams or studying. And it just seemed this great time.
We also know that this was beneficial because in these research studies I was talking about earlier, they actually drew people's blood during this time in between, and they found it was - the hormone prolactin was much more apparent in their bloodstream than normal. And that's the same hormone that chickens basically have when they're sitting on top of an egg in a contented haze.
So it is a natural time that feels good for our bodies. I think one of the reasons why people get upset about that time now, they no longer see it as a nice time, is that there's not the expectation for it to happen. The expectation now is, you know, I need to go to bed at 11, or I need to go to bed at whatever time I need to, but I'm going to do - I'm going to be busy until that time, I'm going to watch "Mad Men," I'm going to watch "Breaking Bad," I'm going to check that one last email. Then I want to flip the switch and go to sleep, and then I want to wake up at whatever time I need to wake up.
And if something gets in the way of that, it's disconcerting, it's scary. And it seems to be more of an annoyance than anything.
NEARY: Of course watching "Breaking Bad" right before you go to sleep is probably not such a good idea.
RANDALL: It's not a good idea, it's true.
NEARY: Getting a good night's sleep, I think.
RANDALL: Yeah, that's a good show to DVR.
NEARY: Let's go to a caller, we're going to go to Casey(ph) is in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Casey.
CASEY: Hi, I love your show, by the way.
NEARY: Well, it's - thank you very much. I'm just sitting in for the day, but I'll take that compliment, thanks.
CASEY: Well, my sleep story is I tend to sleepwalk and sleep-eat. Like I'm sleepwalking and I eat, and I one time woke up in my kitchen with snack wrappers around me that were actually my daughter's, like, little treats. And so I had to end up going and getting another box the next day before she noticed that her snacks weren't there.
And my husband would tell you that the first year we were married, he worked nights, and I worked days. And he went to sleep one morning when I went off to work and found a pork-chop bone underneath my pillow and presented it to me at the end of my day as we were greeting each other and shifting gears and said this is what I found underneath your pillow today. And we still laugh about that to this day. It's really funny.
NEARY: Thanks for your call. So how - David, how common would something like that be, somebody who is eating in her sleep?
RANDALL: It's more common than you expect, to be honest. Part of it is certain drugs like Ambien and Lunesta and some of the other drugs, they now have warnings on the label that say, you know, you might have episodes of sleep-eating or sleep-driving or all these other things because of the way those drugs work is - one of the ways they work is it gives the brain short-term amnesia. So you might fall asleep at 10 o'clock, wake up at six and think hey, there's eight hours I didn't do anything, I don't remember it, and you could have been, you know, eating pork chops and putting the bone under your pillow.
But then there's also people who just naturally sleepwalk. In the book, I talked about this famous case in Canada in the late '80s where somebody - a man drove 14 miles to his in-laws' house, that's - he let himself in with his key, then he stabbed his mother-in-law to death and almost killed his father-in-law. And he drove directly to the police station afterwards.
And he was acquitted. His lawyers were able to convince the jury that he had been sleepwalking the whole time, and part of the reason was they went through his family history, and his father and his grandfather, they would tell stories of going to - waking up the next morning and seeing, you know, fried onions on the stove that hadn't been eaten or waking up, you know, somebody - his grandmother caught him trying to open up a window and jump out from a six-story building when he was completely asleep.
So researchers are starting to realize that there's a lot more in between just waking up - being awake and being asleep than perhaps we give credit for.
NEARY: Yeah, and that was such an extraordinary story about this acquittal based on the fact that the guy sleepwalked. But it hasn't worked in every - it's been tried again and hasn't always worked, that defense, right?
RANDALL: Exactly. You know, lawyers are terrified that this is going to be the new Twinkie defense, you know, a very implausible thing that perhaps can convince one or two people on the jury. There's another, you know, famous case in Phoenix in the late '90s where somebody drove home - or somebody killed his wife, again, and dumped her head under the - in the pool.
And he again said he was sleepwalking the whole time. The jury did not buy it. He's now serving a life imprisonment in a jail not very far from the Mexican border.
NEARY: All right, well, more strange stories about sleep are coming up. Stay with us. The book is called "Dreamland." What's your most interesting sleep story? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. I'm Lynn Neary, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Our guest is David Randall, and there are any number of fascinating stories in his new book, "Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep." In a chapter titled "The Weapon Z," he describes research by Thomas Balkin on sleep in the military.
He writes, quote, "Balkin imagines a scenario where a commander, through the data obtained from each soldier's wrist, realizes that a unit's decision-making abilities will start to decline in a few hours because of a lack of sleep. Depending on the demands of the battlefield, the commander can order the unit either to take a nap before it leaves on patrol or to ingest a stimulant such as caffeinated gum. Fatigue, long the overlooked nemesis of military efficiency, can soon be regulated and quantified as easily as food rations or bullets. In one report, Balkin estimated that in future conflicts, the number of friendly fire accidents will plunge toward zero all on account of the increased decision-making abilities made possible by sleep."
You can read more from the book in an excerpt at our website, npr.org, and we want to know your most interesting sleep story. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. And the email address is email@example.com. And David, I wanted to ask you about that chapter about sleep in the military, which was so interesting, and how just napping can make a huge difference in terms of casualties, especially friendly fire in a war. Tell us about that.
RANDALL: Exactly. Part of the reason why Dr. Balkin looked into this was during the Iraq invasion in 2003, soldiers and generals up at the line kept on saying that, you know, our biggest enemy is the lack of sleep. You know, there were soldiers driving tanks to Baghdad that literally would veer off the side of the road because the guy behind the wheel would fall asleep.
Then that was one of the big reasons why the military decided to look into this. Then in the first Iraq war, they discovered that, you know, about one in four of every friendly fire accident and fatality was caused by sleeplessness and the lack of decision-making ability it kind of hampers.
There's many reasons why sleep is now thought of as one of the best ways to increase your mental awareness and your mental abilities. One of them is that perhaps sleep is the time when our brain is allowed to kind of separate what's important from what it can kind of throw away.
And then while we're dreaming, we can find new connections between things. We can come up with new ideas. We can find new ways of solving whatever problem is in front of us. And then the other side is it gives our brain a chance to rest. There's a part of our brain right behind our forehead called the prefrontal cortex, and this is kind of the only part of the brain that has the ability to think about itself, think about how it was thinking.
And it's aware at all times of your day. You know, when you're in the supermarket, when you're driving your car, when you're listening to great shows like this one, it's always thinking. It's always on, basically. And sleep is a time where it gives it a chance to rest, it gets a chance to kind of replenish itself. It's almost as if it's - as after, you know, lifting something for a long day, you're allowed to let your biceps rest for a little while.
NEARY: But it's not just, you know, going to sleep for the long sleep at night. You know, you really find and researchers are finding that naps are really valuable, not only, like, in the case of the military, they weren't talking about going to sleep for eight hours, they were talking about making the troops take a nap, take a short sleep. And I think you also talked about many businesses allowing for nap time so that there would be more creativity. This is an idea that I think would sell very well with the public out there.
RANDALL: Exactly. There are companies like Google and Nike who, they're realizing, you know, one of their best and most important assets is in the heads of all their employees. So they need that - those brains to be functioning at their highest level at all times. And perhaps - they're realizing that sleep is one way to do that.
And, you know, they've pulled this out from research studies, which have shown that giving somebody a chance to nap, those subjects were able to do things like solve puzzles faster, have a better command of flexible thinking, had a better sense of time, all these other things that were a result of this time that we were sleeping.
NASA found this out too. They had astronauts sleep for 15 to 20 minutes, and then they realized that they were so much better at going down that mental checklist of things that were important to do but perhaps a little boring. Especially in astronauts, they checked safety measures more often. They checked the status of all their equipment more often than they would when they were going longer and longer without sleep.
NEARY: All right, let's take a call from Bob, who's calling from North Bay, San Francisco. Hi, Bob.
BOB: Hi. About nine years ago, Terry Gross had Bruce McEwen on her program, and he introduced the concept of allostatic load, when the body upticks from its normal homeostatic state to a state of emergency. You know, if your boss is chewing you out, or you're about to run away from a grizzly bear. Anyway, escape a stressor, and you get back down to normal homeostasis. But over time allostatic load accumulates.
And they've been doing the same experiment over and over again. They did the first experiments 100 years ago, over 100 years ago, depriving lab animals - dogs, cats, rats, macacs and other, quote, lower end, quote, animals - of sleep to the point where they went into a state of intractable insomnia. And they were basically just animal basket cases.
And anyway, I'm just wondering whether your guest, when he was doing his research, any of the experts he spoke to discussed the concept of allostatic load and how it might impact his sleepwalking. Sleepwalking is basically a special case of sleep inefficiency. And I'll take my answer off the air.
NEARY: All right, thanks so much for calling. David, David Randall?
RANDALL: Yes, they didn't - I didn't - I don't - I don't remember any cases when they said that exact concept, but I'm familiar with what you're talking about. And it does - you do see that in studies of both humans and animals.
NEARY: That if you deprive a person of sleep, it will push you into a sort of constant state of insomnia. Is that the idea?
RANDALL: Well, with rats, for instance, if you keep a rat awake for two weeks, it'll die. And scientists still don't know why exactly.
RANDALL: It'll be kind of a gruesome death. You know, its fur will start falling out, it'll develop gnarly sores all over its body. And the theory basically is that it loses the ability to regulate its own temperature.
The longest a person has stayed awake, it was in the '60s, this high school - San Diego high school teenager named Randy Gardner. He said - you know, he decided he was going to see how long he can stay awake. And a team of researchers from Stanford University happened to read about it in the newspaper beforehand and flew down there to document it.
And he stayed awake for 11 straight days. And after, you know, the first two or three days, he was generally OK, but as the attempt went longer and longer, he seemed to lose all mental facilities. He couldn't add simple numbers in his head. He kind of turned on everybody, wondered why they were doing this to him. You know, and he was, you know, a white teenager in San Diego, and by the end he thought he was the black running back for the San Diego Chargers.
So the brain does definitely start to turn on yourself. And that's one of the strangest things about sleep, is that it all can be solved just by going to sleep for a couple of hours, and there's no lasting damage.
NEARY: And it's not like you have to sleep for two weeks to make up for not sleeping for two weeks. You just have to sleep for, like, eight hours or something, you know.
RANDALL: Exactly. He slept for about 14 hours for the first night, and then within a couple weeks he was caught up, and he was as good as new.
NEARY: Let's take a call from J.R., I believe - no, I'm not sure we've got J.R. anymore. Let's go to - Daniel is calling from Watsonville, California. Daniel?
DANIEL: Oh, yes, hello. Thank you for taking my call.
NEARY: Go ahead.
DANIEL: Yeah, my story, I have - I've been diagnosed with non-REM arousal parasomnia. So that's where you sort of just, like, pop up in bed in the middle of the night and are confused and kind of mumble, but I've also experienced night terrors for my entire life. And I guess my most interesting story would be I was staying with some friends in an apartment, and in my dream, a - I guess I would describe it as like an Iraqi insurgent kicked in the door and shot an RPG at me.
And then in my dream I ran out the door, and when I woke I was in the parking lot in my underwear, screaming, and everybody in the apartment complex was kind of staring out their window and doors, looking at me. And yeah, so, but like I said, I've been...
NEARY: Can I ask you what that's like when you wake up from something like that? So you're out there, everybody's looking at you, you're screaming, and then you wake up, and what is the sense of disorientation you have at that moment? What's it like?
DANIEL: Well, it's strange. For the longest time I didn't remember them, and so I'd sort of just come to, and I'd be really scared, and you know, almost hyperventilating, breathing really heavily, an intense feeling of shame, I guess, for some reason. I'm not really sure why, feeling vulnerable. And then, you know, in that particular instance it was just very embarrassing and just very - I mean, it takes a little while to transition from the dream back into real life, and I can't really describe the transition as it happens.
But looking back on it, it's almost like a hallucinogenic experience, and it takes me a while to sort of piece together what's real and what's not real, you know?
NEARY: Yeah. Well, thanks for your call, Daniel. And...
NEARY: ...David, is this pretty typical of what you know about parasomnia, as you describe it in the book?
RANDALL: It is. I can kind of add my own story of that, too. I have a two-month-old baby at home, so I am, ironically, am not sleeping all that much as I'm talking to all of you right now. The other night I woke up, and my wife woke up, too, and saw me, you know, curling, holding my arms and swinging back and forth in front of our baby's bassinet, saying, I've got the baby, I've got the baby. And, you know, thank God, the baby - our baby was still in his bassinet. I was holding a pillow.
RANDALL: But waking up, then, you do have the strange sensation of how did I get here? I have to put this all together very quickly. It's almost if - as if somebody else was in control of my body, and now I'm going back on the shift, and I'm in control now. I'm taking the pilot's seat. And other people with parasomnias describe the same thing. It's not uncommon.
In the book, I talk about a researcher from the University of Minnesota who researched - who focuses on this. And he's talked to patients who have woken up - one man in Minnesota woke up with a strange sensation that his bed was wet. And he thought: You know, did I wet the bed for the first time in my adult life? He pulled the sheets over, and he looked down at his feet, and they were black with frostbite.
And he and his wife called the ambulance right away. And as the ambulance was kind of wheeling him out, she noticed the footsteps leading from the front door, and she followed them. And he, on a snowy night, had walked a couple of blocks around the house, three or four blocks...
RANDALL: ...on the same route that he takes his dog every day.
RANDALL: And he had no sensation. He didn't know what was happening, whatsoever.
NEARY: I wanted to read an email we got, which is a different take than what we've been - we've been talking a lot about sleep deprivation. This is a different take, from Anna. She says: I sleep way too much. I have epilepsy and take anticonvulsant medication, which makes it hard to wake up in the morning. I take three-hour naps in the afternoon. Too much sleep is not a good thing for me. Sleep isn't refreshing. It's stagnating.
David, did you look into this kind of a problem, somebody who, for - because of a condition they have or a medication they're taking, is sleeping too much and finding it to be a problem - as much of a problem as sleep deprivation, it sounds like.
RANDALL: Yeah. It's kind of the flip side of the coin. And with sleep - I guess sleep overabundance, sleep excess - it does tend to have all these other components. They're usually - tends to be epilepsy. You see this in some cases of depression, too. And then it becomes kind of a chicken-or-the-egg problem for a doctor. They have to tease out: Is it the sleep that's causing this, or is it the other condition? And it makes it very hard to treat.
NEARY: And we also have some tweets here from Obfuscated B: The time I woke up with pillowcases off my pillows, wrapped around my fists, holes ripped in them - that was weird.
From Caroline: I knew a girl who walked and talked in her sleep. She even climbed a ladder once while sleeping, said she was taking a cab.
And from Nicole: I used to find my sis in a different place every a.m. She'd sleepwalk and set up a bed in the bathtub, on the kitchen counter, etc.
So this is a not-uncommon problem, I think.
RANDALL: No. And it's - going back to the University of Minnesota researcher I talked with, he said - you know, he's spoken with patients who have taken to literally tying themselves to the bed at night out of fear that they're either going to hurt themselves or they're going to accidentally commit suicide.
NEARY: Huh. And, you know, one other thing I wanted to ask you about that you write about in the book is dreams, and the fact that there's been a lot of different ways of looking at dreams over the years, from Freud's interpretation of dreams to more recent research that sort of discredits Freud. Where is research on dreams right now?
RANDALL: Most researchers now think that dreams perhaps have a practical function than - that's not symbolic. It's not necessarily - you know, Freud thought, famously, that dreams were these letters to ourselves, that we cloak our desires in symbolism. And then if you went to an analyst, you could unpack them and find out - it was almost like a escape valve for your deep thoughts and concerns.
Now, perhaps, more researchers are of the mind that dreaming could be a time when we let our anxieties go. And this could almost be a time when it's almost a dress rehearsal for our brains, for whatever we're doing the next day. One famous study by Professor Robert Stickgold - he's a professor at Harvard. He was hiking up in Vermont. He was going to bed that night and felt like he was still up on the mountains.
And he realized: Why is this still going on in my dreams? He had undergraduates play "Tetris," the video game, before they went to bed. And then he woke them up to ask: You know, what were you dreaming about? And, you know, he kept on getting the same response. You know, I saw these falling shapes. I felt like I needed to put them in lines. So it was almost as if they were going over the same things they were doing during their waking life.
Then the next night of the study, he asked the same thing, and the number of subjects who said they had these "Tetris" dreams increased. It was almost as if the brain thought, hey, here's this new demand. I'm realizing it's not just a one-off thing. I need to spend more time with this.
And, you know, other studies have found that, you know, those who are able to get to the dreaming stage of sleep are able to pick up new skills quicker. They're able to solve problems faster. And, you know, perhaps all of it is because, you know, dreaming is the time when our brains kind of throw away what's not necessary and look for connections between everything it still knows.
NEARY: All right. I'm going to see if we can get one more call in, here. We're going to go to J.R. in Columbus, Ohio. Hi, J.R.
J.R.: Hello. How are you guys?
NEARY: Good. Quickly now.
J.R.: Yeah, real quick: I was really interested to hear more - I don't know if you know any more about the gene you said that they've isolated that might help people sleep shorter periods of time and still be functional, if they have any idea what that gene's function is, or if they're working on it, or what you know.
RANDALL: They're still working on it. This was - I don't want to say - the study was published in 2010, so it's still very cutting-edge. They basically found out that - what they know about it is that it's unusual. They only found it in one family so far, and they're still seeing what the function is. They're - the military, I asked them, too: You know, do you ever think there's going to be a stage where we're just not going to have to sleep? We're going to identify some gene, or we're going to identify some perfect drug?
And the best understanding science has right now is that we're always going to need to sleep. It's always going to be with us. And perhaps identifying this gene maybe might change it, but it's not likely so far.
NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call. And I've got one last call for you - one last question for you. This is an email from Kendall(ph) , who says: Has David K. Randall's research on sleep afforded him getting better sleep?
RANDALL: That was - well, I did get much better sleep until you enter - until you have a two-month-old baby come into the house.
RANDALL: So then, that changes everything.
NEARY: That changes everything. All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, David. It was good talking with you.
RANDALL: Oh, thank you.
NEARY: David Randall is the author of "Dreamland." And up next, we kick off our freshman read series with Sonia Nazario, the author of "Enrique's Journey." Students, if you've read the book, give us a call: 800-989-8255. I'm Lynn Neary. Stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.