an image of a man sleeping with a book

Sleep Mysteries & Scientific Research of Sleep

Why do we sleep? More than 80 years after the world’s first sleep laboratory and despite of intensive investigations of the sleeping brain, we still do not know the answer. After 80 years of research, we still don’t know for sure why do we sleep. Imagine the possibilities if we could do without it. It would be like adding 25 or 30 years to our life-span. An enormous gain, at the expense of nothing more than the loss of slumber!


Although sleep is crucial to life, most of us feel we do not get enough of it. We are a population of insomniacs, with two-thirds of the people complaining they cannot sleep. The greatest enemy of sleep is, ironically,  worry about not getting enough of it. Most of people who lose the sleep for a night or two are able to make up for it. Prolonged sleeplessness, however, is crippling. Luckily, you can get rid of insomnia by changing your lifestyle and habits.

No-sleep records

Peter Tripp, a New York disc jockey, was among the first to discover the cost of prolonged sleeplessness. He did so in public. Tripp took a part in Wakeathlon, during which he went 201 hours without sleep, while broadcasting from a glass booth. As he went on without sleep he became aggressive, started with hallucinations and paranoia. He even thought his support group conspired against him. Despite everything, he managed to broadcast his program for eight days and survive. His symptoms of irritation and paranoia became classically linked with extreme sleep deprivation. He also suffered from personal and professional problems, which could be associated with his record breaking feat.

And he didn’t even keep the record. Five years later, Randy Gardner broke it with a stint of 11 days awake in January 1964. He also experienced hallucinations and became increasingly grumpy with those around him. Then he curled up in bed and slept for 15 hours.

an image of a woman that gets sleep next to a laptop

Damage made by the lack of sleep

While Tripp and Gardner tested the outer limits of sleeplessness, its damaging effects can sometimes be catastrophic. Take for example the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska on 24. March 1989. When the tanker discharged 260,000 barrels of crude oil into the sea, it triggered one of the worst ecological disasters in history. That cost an estimated $2bn to clear up. The official inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that overtiredness of the crew was a key cause.

Lack of sleep has similarly been blamed for the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in what is now Ukraine, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor breakdown in the US, and the Challenger space shuttle accident that claimed the lives of its seven astronauts.

The most disturbing individual case was of Michael Corke, a music teacher in Chicago. He died of sleeplessness in 1993. One amateur video shows him at his last school concert, walking unsteadily to the conductor’s podium as if he were 90 years old. At that point, he had gone two months without sleep.

Soon after, he was admitted to the University of Chicago hospital. Doctors initially diagnosed multiple sclerosis. Doctors gave him sedatives in a dose big enough to cause coma in any normal human being. However, Corke was unaffected. He was finally diagnosed with the rare genetic disorder of fatal familial insomnia, for which there is no treatment and no cure. He died, aged 42, after six months without sleep. This condition has so far been found in just 25 families worldwide.

a man trying to sleep

Scientific studies of sleep

Efforts to understand the causes and role of sleep begin with Aristotle, He wrote “On sleep and sleeplessness” in which he argued that sleep was caused by the heart cooling down. Other Greek philosophers and physicians said that we sleep because we isolate the body from its senses. But, they took the brain rather than the heart to be the centre of the body’s sensory perception.

It took 2,000 years for humans to be able to study the sleeping brain directly. Nathaniel Kleitman started the first sleep laboratory at the University of Los Angeles in 1925. His team were the first to discover that sleep features different stages, with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep alternating with deeper sleep every 90 minutes. Kleitman’s work is fundamental for modern sleep research.

Dreaming, which occurs during REM sleep, is the one event during the hours of slumber that turns out to be more productive than it appears. A lot of important work was done thanks to dreams. For example: Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday“, R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and even the Periodic table of elements, which Dmitri Medeleev saw in his dream.

science of sleep

Freud's research

Freud made the first serious attempt to penetrate the world of sleep with his most famous work, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899.  Although the modern audience find it dated and contrived, Freud’s theory that the “manifest content” of a dream is created by the unconscious desires that give rise to it has stood the test of time. Freud claimed that it was possible to trace the desires underlying the dream by analyzing dream content. By his words, dreams became the “royal road to the unconscious”.

It is easy to dismiss Freud’s theories today as misguided. But Professor Mark Solms, a neurosurgeon, writes that research over the last 100 years confirms Freud’s view. It says that aspects of Freud’s account of the dreaming mind are so consistent with the currently available neuroscientific data. That’s why he personally thinks they (neuroscientists) would be well advised to use Freud’s model as a guide for the next phase of their investigations.

an image of a man that sleeps and dreams

Dreams in art

Artists have long been influenced and inspired by their nocturnal muses. In a sequence of etchings by Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos, the artist depicts a terrifying world of night and dreams, which explore the darkest side of human nature.  Johann Heinrich Fssli’s painting The Nightmare was one of the most famous paintings of the late 18th century. In it, an incubus squats over a sleeping woman, while a horse peeps through curtains. The work is lent an even greater menace when you realise that the horse is supposedly symbolic of unfettered desire. After Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, the study of sleep and dreams really began to occupy the imagination of artists. Freud’s work was a huge influence on the surrealists. Particular cases are Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, who were so inspired by the psychoanalyst that together they made Un Chien Andalou in 1929. In the film’s central somnambulant sequence, a man with a razor slits a woman’s eye and ants emerge from a hole in a man’s hand, both suggesting Freudian free association. Modern artists are also represented here, including Catherine Yass, whose photographic portraits try to capture the essence of dreams, and Rodney Graham, who took a strong sleeping tablet for a film in which he remembers the comfort of being asleep at night in the back of his parents’ car as a child.
dreams that we all dream


Despite decades of scientific investigation, sleeping is still very much a mystery for the humankind. We still don’t know why do we have to sleep, or what happens during our sleeping time. There are people who tried to function without sleep for a limited time. But, there are (very rare though), people who physically couldn’t sleep, because of a sickness. Some hundred years ago scientists found out about phases of sleep and about dreaming. Dreams are powerful and mysterious, and a lot of important things in human history happened because of them, including scientific breakthroughs and numerous works of art. After Freud made the connection between dreams and subconscious, a lot of artists started to depict dreams and to draw inspiration from them.   

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