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BOOK REVIEW : Coming Awake to the Meaning of Sleep : ASLEEP IN THE FAST LANE: The Impact of Sleep on Work by Lydia Dotto William Morrow & Co. $21.95, 352 pages

December 04, 1990|BETTYANN KEVLES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In "Asleep in the Fast Lane," Canadian science writer Lydia Dotto lists three modern curses that blur the line between night and day. The first, jet lag, had me wide awake recently at 4 a.m., so I turned on the lights (the second curse) and an all-news radio station in time to hear that Chrysler was about to start a 24-hour work schedule (the third curse).

Manufacturing experts were warning Chrysler that running a plant around the clock might strain the machinery. No sleep experts, however, spoke up for the workers whose body clocks could be wrecked by such a schedule.

"Asleep in the Fast Lane" isn't so much about why sleepy people shouldn't operate machinery as it is about how we can control that third of our lives we spend asleep so that we are alert when we are awake. Dotto opens "Asleep in the Fast Lane" dramatically, taking her readers to Toronto's Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine, where she volunteered for an experiment in staying awake for 50 hours. Then, with firsthand knowledge of how sleep deprivation can wreak physical and psychological havoc, Dotto explores the phenomenon of sleep in the context of sleep medicine.

That we dream during REM sleep (so-called because it can be detected by Rapid Eye Movement) is no new finding. However, a recently-discovered sleep disorder is characterized by a cessation of the normal paralysis that occurs during REM sleep, so that the sleeper actually acts out the dream, even to the point of homicide.

Dotto tells us about circadian rhythm (a term derived from the Latin circa (about) and dies (day), our biological clocks that follow a 24-hour cycle, and the subtle rhythms within the cycle that include mini-sleep/wake cycles. She verifies what many of us have long suspected, that we work better at certain times of day than others. These high and low points correlate with the fact that both the Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island accidents occurred around 4 a.m., as do a disproportionate number of automobile crashes.

Shift workers, jet pilots who zip through time zones, and astronauts in space labs work without regard to the rising and setting of the sun. But the human body has not kept up with human ingenuity. There have been instances, Dotto tells us, when whole crews in jet airplanes have fallen asleep in the cockpit and overflown their destination.

The solution to the hazards of nontraditional work shifts may be to return to ancient sleep habits. Many mammals take short naps round the clock. Others, like apes, nap after lunch. Can naps make workers more efficient? Apparently they can, for some people, and in the proper dosage. But how can we be sure a worker is rested and alert?

Dotto describes one solution, a device developed for Transport Canada for possible use by air traffic controllers. SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Detector) is a helmet-like device with 60 sensors that monitors magnetic brain activity and can sound an alert should the worker doze off. This could herald a new directive in the workplace: sleep management.

The idea of monitoring someone's brain waves has overtones of Big Brother and would probably be a hard sell. But it is not very different from urinalysis for drug detection, which is now mandatory in many jobs that put the lives of other people at risk.

Dotto's research is far-ranging. She tells us that for a long-distance racing sailor, a few minutes sleep at regular intervals spelled success. Are we to conclude that catnapping in order to sustain high performance is good for all of us? Should we sleep more or less? One researcher she quotes says that "most people in industrialized societies suffer from chronic partial sleep deprivation." Another says "the average sleeper can reduce his or her sleep by about 1 1/2 to 2 hours . . . without suffering."

Whom should we believe? Dotto doesn't say. The wealth of her research is diminished by repetition and by her refusal to evaluate often contradictory research. But her message is basically a sound one: Since we are developing new sleep patterns in a world increasingly removed from the dictates of nature, we ought to know what we are doing so we don't fall "Asleep in the Fast Lane."

Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews "In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen" by Gordon J. Horwitz (The Free Press ).

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