Mr. Sandman – sleep researcher William C. Dement – Brief Article – Interview
William C. Dement knows that failing to get enough sleep is more than a minor nuisance. It causes malaise, poor concentration, moodiness, ill health, and accidental deaths. During more than four decades of pioneering research, Dement codiscovered REM sleep, founded Stanford University’s Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Center, and witnessed countless examples of the ways the body malfunctions when deprived of proper rest. Discover Associate Editor Kathy A. Svitil talked to Dement about his research and his personal crusade against sleep deprivation.
How bad is the problem of sleep deprivation in the United States?
Very bad. Everybody is sleepy.
Doesn’t the brain compensate for lack of sleep?
I don’t think it does. Think of going to sleep as a balance. There is so much weight on the sleep side and so much on the awake side. Caffeine, pain, excitement, activity–these things push the balance in the awake direction, but the sleep deprivation side may keep getting heavier until nothing can oppose it. Them is new MRI research that suggests some areas of the brain get more active, maybe in an effort to take up the slack. But that may also just be an effect of sleep deprivation.
Will we ever have a cure for people who can’t sleep?
Insomnia is quite a few different things. The insomnia that arises out of stress or tragedy, things like that, we’ll certainly be able to treat. To cure all insomnia would be like being able to have healthy sleep whenever you wanted. We can’t do that yet.
What do you think about using melatonin to control sleep?
If you take the recommended dose of melatonin and it helps you, fine. There are worse things people do–drinking yourself to sleep, or trying to get alert with cocaine.
Will there ever be a pill that delivers alertness on demand?
Not one you could absolutely depend upon, no matter how sleep deprived you were.
Will we ever understand why we need to sleep?
I’m confident of that. The biggest breakthrough was the isolation of the narcolepsy gene in dogs. One abnormal gene causes the quintessential sleep disorder. It suggests we’re almost there.
Why do we dream?
The brain is so active during REM sleep, it’s almost as if it has to do something. While you’re awake you could ask, “Why am I conscious?” Well, you are awake, so why are you dreaming when you’re asleep? Because the brain created the dream world, and we have no choice but to live in it.
Would you want to be able to live without sleeping?
We’re so accustomed to a beginning and an end, that to have consciousness going on forever would be hard. Maybe we could be really happy with one hour of sleep, to end the day and begin the next one.
MYTH: The moon orbits Earth.
FACT: The moon does circle Earth, but the sun’s hold on the moon is actually twice as strong as Earth’s. All the other planets, in contrast, dominate the pull on their major satellites. In a sense, the moon behaves less like a satellite than as a separate planet that orbits the sun in concert with Earth.
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