Remember him?

The little dwarf immortalised in Disney’s film of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, whose focus was non-existent because he was too drowsy to take a part?

Or that poor maligned dormouse in Lewis Carroll’s bizarre world.

I don’t like Carroll as a rule: he’s a little stylised for my taste. But that tea party in Alice in Wonderland. , hosted by an unhinged gentleman from the milliner’s trade: that does ring a bell.

When we first meet the dormouse it is sitting between the March hare and the mad hatter , who are using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it. It carries on its own existence oblivious of the cacophony around it, half-aware of the conversation, half wrapped up in alpha waves.

It does contribute: it sings “twinkle twinkle” at one stage, but omits the “little star“, repeating twinkletwinkletwinkle ad infinitum until everyone pinches it to make it stop.

And it tells a story: it could only ever be the product of alpha sleep, for it centres on three little girls who live down a well and draw all manner of things which begin with an M.

As Alice leaves, disgusted with the nonsensical conversation, she glimpses them trying to stuff the dormouse in the teapot. Presumably to wake it up.

Today I was bang smack in the middle of teaching: a high-energy piece of theatre involving telling the time in half hours – when I realised quite suddenly that I , too, desperately needed stuffing into a teapot to wake me up.

Ever since, I have been fighting drowsiness: drooping lids and yawns. I am trying hard not to sing twinkletwinkletwinkletwinkle, in case some well-meaning bystander tries to pinch me awake.

And most of the people I know feel the same way.Why should that be? Our hours of sleep have not changed significantly.

But the hours of daylight, here at  51 degrees 32 minutes north, have.

In the middle of Summer our daylight begins insanely early, around the five o’clock mark, and continues until nine in the evening. We wear t-shirts and shorts and every inch of our skin absorbs the sunlight we crave.

But now it begins to get light around seven, and it darkens once more before five. The nights, as they say here, are drawing in. And it has its effect. We are already dark-weary.

Once upon a time, when electricity was not even a twinkle in the eye of scientists and the candle was the only way to light a room at night, we would wake with the dawn, and work until dusk.

And we were not the only civilisation to work with the daylight: Inuits traditionally spent the long hours of the polar night sleeping 14 hours a night. And in their heady polar summer they would sleep only six or so hours.

And they were not sleepy in Summer.

It begs the question: what is this sleep achieving? Can it ward off the worst excesses of the lands of the dark?

The amount of time different animals sleep varies wildly. A python requires 18 hours of sleep a day. Conversely, a sheep sleeps for only 3.8 hours in every twenty-four.

Why are they sleeping? What are they using their unconscious hours to do?

It must be 15 years since my husband took me up on a work jolly to Glasgow, and I saw the strangest manifestation of sleep I think I have ever encountered.

I wandered out of the hotel and off to explore the city. And one of the first places I came across was Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts in Sauchihall Street.

It was irresistibly edgy. And upstairs was an artist whose particulars I have long forgotten, creating performance art simply by sleeping.

He had sensors attached to his head so that the electricity firing in his brain could be monitored. When I went up to peer inside, a figure lay sleeping in dim reddish light, inside a small room.

This was not science; there was measurement but little analysis. It was an invitation to gawp at sleep in the manner of a Victorian sideshow. Behold, phantasmagorical sleep, as it invigorates and rejuvenates an entire human body. Gasp at the human mind as it conducts its sleep cycles.

Roll up, roll up.

Because despite the plethora of research projects and fund of observational evidence, our scientists really don’t know a lot about why we sleep.

Like every other undiscovered country, sleep baffles us and entrances us. We are fascinated because we know the brain goes through distinct behaviours unbidden by us- REM and Non-REM, Light, true and deep sleep-  but we do not really understand why.

And so, rather than answer the big Why, we resort to fairground trivia, and goggle at sleep disorders and electrical signals from one of the last great undiscovered continents.

The human mind.


47 thoughts on “Sleepy

  1. How strange that this is posted the day after I had nearly fallen asleep at the computer.

    Yesterday afternoon awaiting a delivery that was coming at 4, but didn’t arrive until 4.45 I was driven to walking around the house doing jobs to keep awake. The night before had been a very bad one! I’ll have a nap after the delivery, I thought, but time was getting tighter by the minute.

    But when the delivery came I discovered my cheque in the bottom of the bag and I had to run after the folk that had delivered it…. literally 5 minutes in the fresh air, (nearly dark) and when I arrived home again I was revived. No nap needed. 🙂

    I think this is a good lesson for me!

  2. I think a lot, maybe most, sleep patterns are learned by habit. Mess around with trying to change them and you’ll probably settle down to a new habit, just in time for the daylight savings to change again. Some people do seem to adjust easier than others…

  3. I’m right with you, Kate. I don’t so much mind waking up in the dark, watching the day unfold, that sort of thing, but, oh, when it is dark at 5 o’clock in the afternoon . . . Good post.

    1. Waking the children up for school in the dark is rough, Penny: and yet in midsummer waking them is never necessary….the 5pm slot has a name in our family. We call it the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.

  4. And did you confer with Paula today? (

    This is so exactly “right on.” For the first 2 or 3 nights of this earlier dark, I’ve been falling asleep upright by 9:30 or 10:00 pm – then awake for a chunk of time in the wee hours. As I’ve already opined this morning, I prefer DST, or that the ever-present “they” would choose DST as the norm and settle there once and for all, but I doubt my chances. 🙂

    1. I know, Karen, it’s been messed about with so much here: Our Mr Cameron, master of the knee-jerk response, has mooted doing away with changing the clocks all together. We will see what transpires 🙂

  5. My biological clock is up the wall too – waking at 5.00am and looking out at the dark gloomy morning – spend an hour reading – back to bed at 6.00am and then sleeping late. This messes up the next night. Roll on the longer daylight hours.

  6. That tea party has always been one of my favourite scenes (reads) in Alice in Wonderland – love those particular characterizations of Carroll’s. And these dark late afternoons, I too am reminded of the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, for good reason: we’re only three degrees or so off from you – at 48°25′ – here where I live in Victoria, Canada.

  7. The conversations involving Alice and Carroll’s creatures always make me smile. I dislike the shift from Daylight Savings Time back to standard. I’d rather have light in the evening when I’m interested in being out and about.

    What light through yonder window breaks . . . {{snooze}}

  8. I agree with Nancy above. I’d prefer to stay on Daylight Savings year-round. The changes are too disruptive and take too long for me to adjust. And, speaking of that, it means I wake up sometime around 3am my time, find your blog and Earlybird’s blog and read them. Sometimes, I even comment. Clearly, the DON’T lull me back to sleep. 🙂

    This doesn’t help me after a thirteen hour work day when I have to finish my blog post for in the morning. zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

    I would love to have seen that sleeper in Glasgow. I would never be able to sleep with people gawping at me.

    1. I think some people are just born exhibitionists, Andra 😀
      How you write a decent blog post after a thirteen hour work day I will never know! Hope the body clock settles down soon…

  9. Looks like you know my Father -In -Law, well, at least…according to his daughter, and his wife.. he’s the epitome of “Sleepy” as just tonight in fact while he and Ma -in – Law were packing for a trip to Georgia, some 6-8 hour drive,..his anatomical clock kicked in, and he virtually fell asleep standing… But, the nap must have had metamorphic effects on him, as when he awakened to find that Ma-In-Law had not finished packing the car…He was then “Grumpy”..

    My Wife Is Bre Castillo, and she approved this Message. (had to clear it with her ya know or I could wind up as a NEW Dwarf “Sleepless”)
    Bless You

    1. Funny, I know lots of people who wake grumpy after a nap. A BBC Horizon programme on sleep recorded how scientists woke sleepers up at different stages of the night. They would do quick tests which showed how positive or negative they were feeling. The scientists realised there were positive parts of the sleep cycle and negative ones: and if you were woken up in a negative part of a cycle you would be in a grumpy frame of mind all day….

  10. I don’t like the time change! With it getting dark by 5:00 pm I’m dragging. I haven’t yet adjusted to less sun, and I live in sunny Southern California! Even so, I’m feeling it! I find sleep and sleeplessness a fascinating subject. I need all that I can reasonably expect and my dear husband averages maybe four hours a night. We run our own sleep lab over here! Debra

  11. Those of us who don’t have day;ight saving time imposed on us, just change what we do in the mornings, between summer and winter. Live like a caveman 😉

  12. I’m glad to know it isn’t just me nodding off in the middle of everything, :). I’ve been so sleepy since the time change, yet i actually like standard time better than daylight saving – it feels more natural to me and comes with a sense of relaxation of the mind as well as the body. And I seem to be more creative during it (if I can just stay awake to act on the creative urge).

  13. Apparently long-term memories are formed during REM and scientific experiments have shown that a sustained lack of REM leads to severe depression and eventually psychosis. The human mind is, indeed, “one of the last great undiscovered continents”, Kate – great post 😀

  14. This is an interesting read, Kate, as I didn’t feel the benefit from the ‘extra’ hour this time too. I’ve been waking at the ‘wrong’ times, and feeling very tired most of the time as well. By all accounts, it looks as though it isn’t only me then. Very strange…

  15. I find it annoying that on those mornings when I COULD actually sleep for longer, I can’t due to having to get up, yet when I have that rare occasion to actually have a lie-in…sods law I cannot sleep!

  16. For whatever reason we do it, I do love sleep. ;My own completely untestable theory is that God created us to need sleep so that we would have to live in community – an unavoidable vulnerability that requires that we either find a place to hide or someone we trust to keep watch.

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