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A rousing book on sleep

Published: 
Sunday, October 5, 2014

I never dreamed about using a non-fiction book like The Secret Life of Sleep by Kat Duff for our Sunday Arts Section (SAS) Book Club choice for the month of October until my friend Annie sent it to me as a Kindle gift. The Secret Life of Sleep arouses a whole new level of discussion for book club readers while imparting some invaluable information about an activity that takes up about a third of our lives. “One cannot properly describe human life unless one shows it soaked in the sleep in which it plunges, which, night after night sweeps round it as a promontory is encircled by the sea,” Marcel Proust wrote.

Creative people—especially writers and musicians—often claim they get inspiration from their dreams.  I remember soca singer David Rudder telling me that he actually dreamed the horn lines for his song Bacchanal Woman. He heard the entire horn section in his sleep. Sleep is something we need, and it’s something we rarely think about. Sometimes we discuss dreams like we discuss a novel, but few people stop to ponder the deep, often dark, lessons that dreams provide. Duff says the universality of sleep—every living thing seems to sleep, from birds and bees to salamanders, roundworms and giraffes—suggests that it is deeply rooted in animal life. 

And what about the rituals we establish before we go to sleep from the warm glass of milk to the book by the night stand? What role do those rituals play in our lives? How does sleep—or lack of it—affect our day? Duff says, “Sleep and waking states are like separate countries with a common border…. The seemingly unknowable hours we spend in sleep constitute recurring gaps in our waking awareness, and the inescapability of sleep suggests that something important happens during these gaps.” In the past couple of weeks, I noticed Internet stories that question the amount of sleep we need a night. Doctors once said adults needed eight hours. 

Now, they say seven hours is the magic number. And what about the hours we sleep? Must they be seven hours in a row? There’s an interesting discussion about that in The Secret Life of Sleep.
It’s only relatively recently that we have learned some invaluable information about sleep. It was 1953—the same year DNA was discovered—when Eugene Aserinsky placed electrodes on his eight-year-old son’s head while he slept and noticed a change in brain waves during sleep plus rapid eye movements (REM) that accompany dreams. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but back then it proved that brains were actually active during sleep. Before that, people thought the brain was inactive during sleep. 

The fact that 25 per cent of Americans take a sleep aid proves that sleep doesn’t come easy to many people. What does that say about western culture? Duff used scientific research, literary descriptions, autobiographies, myths, cultures and studies throughout the world to write The Secret Life of Sleep. “The topic of sleep opens a Pandora’s box of bigger questions about the nature of consciousness and unconsciousness, remembering and forgetting, body and soul and reality itself, which cannot be ignored,” says Duff. Join the SAS Book Club group on Facebook to discuss this fascinating book The Secret Life of Sleep.

Discussion Question
1. Does everyone dream?
2. What do you think is the most common type of dream?
3. Do you believe that dreams have meaning?
4. How often do you reveal your dreams to others? Are there dreams that you have never told anyone about? If so, why not?

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