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.