Longform’s Guide to Sleep: Great stories about good dreams, bad dreams, night terrors, and insomnia.

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Oct. 27 2012 7:34 AM

The Longform Guide to Sleep

Good dreams, bad dreams, night terrors, insomnia, and sleep deprivation—a collection of slumber stories.

A baby sleeps.
A toddler sleeps

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

For all the time we spend asleep, the science of how and why we slumber remains surprisingly mysterious.

In Which We're Up All Night
Elizabeth Gumport • This Recording • December 2010

An essay on insomnia.

“It is impossible to describe insomnia to people who are sound sleepers. These are the people who trust that getting in bed will be followed by falling asleep, as surely as night follows day; these are the fearless people. Sleepless people are a very different breed. They know what insomnia really is: not just the failure to fall asleep, but the fear of that failure. For an insomniac, there is no such thing as a good night. Every evening—even if it eventually, mercifully comes to an end—is shredded by anxiety. To reach sleep the insomniac must first pass through terror.

The fearless person also fails to understand how easy it is to become one of the sleepless people. All it takes is one bad night. That bad night begets others: once you know you might not be able to sleep, you can't. Recognizing that staying awake all night is a very real possibility, something that could actually happen, is no different than realizing that your boyfriend might no longer be interested in you, or that the friendship you thought was indestructible is, in fact, as vulnerable as anything else, or that you could very well not succeed at doing the work you so badly want to do. When you imagine such scenarios, you seem almost to will them into existence. To see the abyss is to take the first step towards it. What made F. Scott Fitzgerald ‘sleep-conscious,’ as he called it, was a mosquito: the bug bothered him all night, and after that he had trouble sleeping for years.”

The Secrets of Sleep
D.T. Max • National Geographic • May 2010   

We know we need sleep. We just don’t know why.

“In the most famous attempt to figure out why we sleep, in the 1980s, Rechtschaffen forced rats to stay awake in his University of Chicago lab by placing them on a disk suspended on a spindle over a tank of water. If the rats fell asleep, the disk would turn and throw them in the water; when they fell into the water, they immediately woke up. After about two weeks of this strict enforcement of sleeplessness, all the rats were dead. But when Rechtschaffen performed necropsies on the animals, he could not find anything significantly wrong with them. Their organs were not damaged; they appeared to have died from exhaustion—that is, from not sleeping. A follow-up experiment in 2002, with more sophisticated instruments, again failed to find ‘an unambiguous cause of death’ in the rats.

At Stanford University I visited William Dement, the retired dean of sleep studies, a co-discoverer of REM sleep, and co-founder of the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center. I asked him to tell me what he knew, after 50 years of research, about the reason we sleep. ‘As far as I know,’ he answered, ‘the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.’ ”

Sleep We Have Lost
A. Roger Ekirch • American Historical Review • April 2001

Sleeping habits before the Industrial Revolution.

“This article seeks to explore the elusive realm of sleep in early modern British society, with the aid of occasional illustrations from elsewhere in Europe and British North America. Although England forms the heart of my inquiry, I have focused on facets of slumber common to most Western societies, including, most significantly, the predominant pattern of sleep before the Industrial Revolution. Few characteristics of sleep in past ages, much less the ‘arcana’ of ‘old country-folk,’ have received examination since Samuel Johnson complained that ‘so liberal and impartial a benefactor’ should ‘meet with so few historians.’ Apart from fleeting references in scholarly monographs to the prolonged sleeping habits of pre-industrial communities, only the subject of dreams has drawn sustained scrutiny. Early modern scholars have neglected such topics as bedtime rituals, sleep deprivation, and variations in slumber between different social ranks. In the first portion of this article, I explore these and other features, not only to map sleep's principal contours but also to underscore its manifold importance in everyday life. More significantly, this section lays the foundation for a detailed investigation of segmented sleep and, ultimately, its relationship to early modern dreams. If the overall subject of slumber for historians has remained cloaked in obscurity, the age-old pattern of ‘first’ and ‘second sleep’ has been wholly ignored. Central to the entire article is the profound role pre-industrial sleep played in the lives of ordinary men and women, which by no means included the assurance of sound slumber.”

Can You Die From a Nightmare?
Doree Shafrir • BuzzFeed • September 2012

Coming to grips with night terrors.

“Then, finally, I wake up. My two dogs are cowering in the corner, and I put on shoes to sweep up the glass. I am confused and embarrassed, though there is no one besides the dogs there to see that I just pushed a framed poster off a wall and broke it. I clean up the glass and go back to sleep, and it is not until the morning, when I see my shoes scattered everywhere, that I look into the closet and realize that I have also ripped the TV cable completely out of the back wall of my closet.

These brief but incredibly vivid nightmares happen for years: they're never quite so violent as that first one, which happened around 2003, but almost always as scary. I don't know what to call them, but they become a familiar part of bedtime, and there are times when I am afraid to go to bed because I know that just as I start to fall asleep, I will be jolted aware in a state of sheer terror. Then, just as suddenly as they start, they ebb for a time, and I wonder if I've gotten better. But they always come back.”

Deep Into Sleep
Craig Lambert • Harvard Magazine • July 2005

The state of sleep research and what Americans’ unprecedented lack of shuteye may mean in the long run.

Homo sapiens is not a nocturnal animal; we don’t have good night vision and are not especially effective in darkness. Yet in an instant on the evolutionary time scale, Edison’s invention of the light bulb, and his opening of the first round-the-clock power plant on Pearl Street in Manhattan in 1882, shifted our time-and-light environment in the nocturnal direction. At the snap of a switch, a whole range of nighttime activity opened up, and today we live in a 24-hour world that is always available for work or play. Television and telephones never shut down; the Internet allows you to shop, gamble, work, or flirt at 3 a.m.; businesses stay open ever-longer hours; tens of millions of travelers cross multiple time zones each year, worldwide; and with the growth of global commerce and communication, Wall Street traders may need to rise early or stay up late to keep abreast of developments on Japan’s Nikkei exchange or at the Deutsche Bundesbank.

Consequently most of us now sleep less than people did a century ago, or even 50 years ago. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 poll showed adult Americans averaging 6.8 hours of sleep on weeknights—more than an hour less than they need, Czeisler says. Not only how much sleep, but when people sleep has changed. In the United States, six to eight million shift workers toil regularly at night, disrupting sleep patterns in ways that are not necessarily amenable to adaptation. Many people get only five hours per night during the week and then try to catch up by logging nine hours nightly on weekends. ‘You can make up for acute sleep deprivation,’ says David P. White, McGinness professor of sleep medicine and director of the sleep disorders program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. ‘But we don’t know what happens when people are chronically sleep-deprived over years.’ ”

Adventures N My Bed
Bucky McMahon • Esquire • February 2003

Dabbling with lucid dreaming.

“Dream sex, dream flight, creative control—we novices wanted some of that. But either nobody was talking or we weren't getting any. Not much. Not yet. The key for us—as Stephen LaBerge discovered as a young Ph.D. candidate at Stanford's sleep lab, under the gun and needing to lucid dream on demand--would be memory. Simple, mysterious memory, the brain's ability to remember to remember to do something. And memory training, along with the science of sleep and consciousness, has been the main thrust of the seminar. We've made lists of personal dream signs--bits of recurrent bizarreness--to try to remember to recognize and thus use to trigger lucidity. I once owned a horse, for example, that shows up pretty regularly in my dreams, still angling for the crippling kick; I've been on the lookout for that brute. And all week we've been playing a memory game in which every time someone in the group hands you something, you must wink or tap your brow—I remember!—or else get a flower sticker on your name tag. We've made countless ‘state checks’ during the day, asking ourselves, ’Am I dreaming?’ trying really to examine the nature of waking awareness, making little hops to see if gravity is operational, so that the question will become habitual and the likelihood that we will remember to ask ‘Am I dreaming?’ while dreaming goes way up. And then we'd try to fly. For in the dream, to ask is to know, sometimes; but to fly is to dream, nearly always.

In short, we've cultivated at our leisure an absurd obsession. And I remember it was starting to work.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

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