Lydia Hales Reviews Spindles: Stories from the Science of Sleep
edited by Ra Page & Penny Lewis
Should we always question the hard facts in a beautifully-told story? Obviously that depends on what the story is trying to do – if it’s trying to pass as a piece of journalism, definitely, but what of creative works? Some would argue that you lose something when you start to dissect a creative work too ruthlessly, or become disappointed if it’s not ‘true’. Spindles: stories from the science of sleep, manages to temper the idea of ‘fact-checking’ fictional stories in a way that creates a stronger whole. The book is a collection of stories from 14 authors, who, each assigned a different sleep condition, could interpret its effects however they chose. Each story is then reflected on by an expert in that particular field.
Spindles brings together distinctly different voices to explore the various conditions. It seems a nice reflection of the diverse ways that sleep – a necessary part of life, and something that without exception we all need – is different for us all. The stories range from sinister experiments, sci-fi explorations of sleep as an opportunity to improve memory and and relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the ethics of interfering with people’s dreams, through to the insanity and warped perceptions of those suffering extreme lack of sleep. Sleep is represented as everything from a refuge and fountain of restoration through to an unattainable grail, a ‘curse’, or a terrible ordeal.
My only real ‘criticism’ of this book – and it’s a half-hearted one – is that the scientists giving commentary after each each story seemed not to have had any particular brief: there seemed to be no uniform approach or structure to the aspects they chose to respond to. Some responded to the stories directly, as Professor Robert Stickgold did to Sarah Schofield’s story. He begins by saying “it’s time to separate the science from the fiction,” listing the prominent ideas and then discussing their accuracy or plausibility. Others don’t specifically address the ideas in the story at all, preferring to give an overview of the condition and the latest research in that area. This can be frustrating in some instances if you want the plausibility of an idea explained. But perhaps it’s unfair to expect formulaic responses from the scientists only, since the authors themselves had such leniency in the formats their stories took.
Some draw inspiration from mythology or fables – for example the gods Hypnos, Morpheus and Circadia hatching a plan to combat the interruption of teenagers’ sleep by technology; or a young girl with ‘thunder in her head’ who takes fateful walks in her sleep. Others approach their sleep condition in an abstract way, as with the beautifully understated story of a husband and wife’s fragmented day, where the term narcolepsy is mentioned only in the title but its affects are lived via the surreal and disjointed nature of the story.
The story of a somewhat naive man who develops an app to help people solve problems in their dreams but which is then hijacked for more sinister uses, appears to fall so close to the realm of possibility that even the reviewing scientist is uncomfortable. As Stickgold concludes after breaking down the major points of this story: “So looking at what we know and what we don’t know, I guess we can’t really say that such dream manipulation couldn’t be more effective than I’ve been thinking…Okay, so now I’ve scared myself!”
Another quite haunting story is that by Adam Roberts. An ‘alternate history’ account by a literary heavy-weight – who thinks of himself as the “enemy” of Sartre, and wins the Nobel Prize in Literature in the year that Sartre did in reality – it documents the narrator’s encounters with a morally-questionable scientist obsessed with ‘curing’ the human race of sleep, no matter how traumatic the process. As Dr Penelope Lewis, the scientist responding to the story, says: “The question of why we sleep, and what would happen if we didn’t, has haunted psychology for well over a century.” She refers to the ethical difficulties in studying the effects of sleep deprivation, and several examples of our morbid fascination with it, including the “unratified tale of the Russian Sleep Experiment,” which has gruesome parallells with the fictional doctor’s experiments.
Introducing fiction to the exploration of sleep conditions allows what would otherwise be a very clinical review to instead explore the emotional effects that seem almost inseparable from sleep disorders. Whether the author is exposing us to the irrationality in some sufferers – so obvious to everyone else around them – or giving insight into the bewildering world others, the fictional stories bring a richness to the book that would have been very difficult to achieve otherwise.
It allows the reader to ‘experience’ the effects and to envision possibilities that might otherwise be a dry listing of symptoms. Even with the most fantasised storylines, there’s plenty to learn ‘fact-wise’ throughout the book, for example what we understand of the different stages of sleep; the research being done by each of the commenting scientists in their specific fields; the difficulties in treating some conditions; or simply the existence of others – I certainly was surprised to learn about paradoxical insomnia, where sufferers display all the symptoms of an insomniac and are convinced they’ve not slept well, but when monitored appear to actually be having relatively normal sleep. Stephanie Romiszewski’s reflection on Lisa Tuttle’s paradoxical insomnia story illustrates the strength of using fiction to explore this little-understood condition: “Lisa’s story perfectly reflects the frustration that sufferers of this condition feel, as well as the sense of loneliness…It is also an excellent example of how science can only tell us so much, and that we are still very much reliant on our own feelings and perceptions of the world.”
In this way, I would argue that the more important – or at least enjoyable – aspect of the book is learning to see many different versions of reality through many different eyes, along with the ideas that ‘pushing’ the science encourage. In referring to Edward O Wilson in his commentary, Professor Adam Zeman summed it up nicely: “science offers explanation while art provides understanding.”
Lydia Hales is a science writer at Science in Public and freelance science/health journalist. She has been published by ABC Science, ABC Health & Wellbeing, Australian Geographic, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
When she isn’t reading or writing about science she’s probably reading or writing about something else.