Archive Gallery: The Science of Sleep

Tips for more restful slumber, decoding how we dream and just a dash of pseudoscience

We spend a third of our days asleep, and a good portion of the rest of them talking about it. We had a good night’s sleep, a bad night’s sleep, we stayed up too late, got up too early, now we’re exhausted, last night we wrote a perfectly coherent essay in our sleep… well, maybe not. But Dr. John D. Quackenbos did, or so says a Popular Science article from 1919.

And in true archive gallery form, there’s more weirdness where that came from. Putting people into a “frozen sleep” to cure cancer, a bizarre fix for insomnia, a soundproof sleep booth and more.

We’ve also sprinkled in some interesting facts about the effects of sleep deprivation, and what happens when you dream. Enter the gallery above to learn more. Hopefully we don’t put you to sleep.

Somnambulating, July 1919
Somnambulating, July 1919 Pop Sci Archives

PopSci rounded up a veritable who’s who of sleepwalkers for this story on somnambulism, or activities performed by sleeping people. Here are some of the most fantastic tales:

  • The Russian banker who, while awake, decided not to take a risk by purchasing part of an oil company. His sleeping self, however, had a different plan, and wrote a letter instructing his agents to invest heavily. He made $2.5 million.

  • The woman who hid her diamond ring from herself while she was hypnotized.

  • The man who went to sleep with paper and a pencil and woke up to a “perfectly coherent essay.” Important: this man’s name is Dr. John D. Quackenbos.

  • The man who couldn’t swim while he was awake, but regularly traversed a two-mile wide river in his sleep.

We also noted that “somnambulism is generally confined to children or to the youthful – in other words, to those happy people who still preserve illusions.” In other words, if you want to write essays in your sleep, be sure never to lose your childlike sense of wonder.

This Will Cure Your Insomnia, January 1920
This Will Cure Your Insomnia, January 1920 Pop Sci Archives

If you’re having trouble sleeping, why not lie in an incredibly uncomfortable-looking position? It seems counterintuitive, we know, but it must work, otherwise they wouldn’t give it a patent. Right? The key to this method is a two-piece mattress, with one side able to be folded in half. Before you go to sleep, fold the subdivided side in two, creating a ledge upon which you can rest your weary head. This helps relieve your brain’s blood pressure. (And works out your abs?) Once you feel drowsy enough, you can fold the mattress back out into a single layer, lie down and catch the midnight express to dreamland.

Awake for Five Days, July 1925
Awake for Five Days, July 1925 Pop Sci Archives

In 1925, two scientists stayed awake for five days and four nights, to test the effects that sleep deprivation would have on the human body. One of them recounted his story to us. At first, he did fine. A little weary, perhaps, but not too bad. On day three, though, he had to stop himself from “thrashing” his assistant, who he had instructed to keep him awake by shaking him periodically. On the fourth day, he slipped into a depression, and by day five his eyes were burning, and he was constantly hungry. His assistants took him to a cabaret, in hopes that the glitz and glamour would help keep him awake, which it did, he said, but “I was so tired that I could have gone to sleep standing up. In fact, I am sure I would have done so had I been able to evade my escorts and brace myself against a wall or post.” Despite this harrowing ordeal, the researcher claimed that after two normal days of sleep, he was right as rain.

Sleep Less, Do More, October 1927
Sleep Less, Do More, October 1927 Pop Sci Archives

In college, my roommate was convinced that I was a “hypersomniac” because I regularly slept until 2 p.m. on weekends. Eight hours a night should be more than enough for anybody, she reasoned. According to Dr. Donald A. Laird, we were both wrong, though, I suppose, me more so than her. All the people who told you to be sure to get enough sleep, those who “claimed to have your interests at heart” (suggesting, that they in fact did not, but don’t worry, Dr. Laird does) were wrong. If you need more than six hours a night, he said, it’s because you’re not doing it right. You have to train yourself to sleep more deeply, Laird says. He suggests taking a 45-minute nap at noon, and sleeping half on your side, half on your stomach to help facilitate this. An unrelated, but nonetheless disturbing fact revealed by this story: Scientists apparently learned that blood flow to your brain decreases when you sleep thanks to a Parisian beggar who lost part of his skull. In the hospital, scientists “were able to watch the blood stream ebb and flow as he slept and awoke.”

No Rest for the Weary, May 1936
No Rest for the Weary, May 1936 Pop Sci Archives

To figure out what conditions are necessary for a good night’s sleep, scientists at the University of Chicago subjected volunteers (we assume mostly college students hard-up for beer money) to perhaps the least restful slumber ever. They set off loud noisemakers while the subjects slept, and the volunteers had to press a button as quickly as possible once they heard the noise. The time lapse between the noise and the pressing of the button would show how soundly they had been sleeping. The question that is not answered though, is how this guy ever got to sleep in the first place with these lab coats hovering over him with a timer.

The Dubious Assertion of Freezing People to Cure Their Cancer, September 1939
The Dubious Assertion of Freezing People to Cure Their Cancer, September 1939 Pop Sci Archives

If you have ever felt jealous of hibernating animals, and wished that perhaps humans could sleep all winter rather than braving the slush and the ice, and if, what’s more, you’ve long suspected that such a state could cure some of humanity’s worst ailments, like, say, cancer, then this is the article for you. If you are a normal person who thinks freezing people to the point where their organs stop working is a bad idea, maybe not so much. In a radical experiment, 32 women suffering from inoperable cancer agreed to have their body temperatures reduced to as low as 82 degrees Fahrenheit, essentially putting them in a state of suspended animation. When they were awakened five days later with “hot applications and steaming coffee,” their cancer appeared to be receding and they “began to feel new interest in living.” Science.

The Sleep Booth, October 1941
The Sleep Booth, October 1941 Pop Sci Archives

If you’re a light sleeper (and not claustrophobic, or afraid of being buried alive), then the sleep booth might be just the thing for you. It’s a portable, air-conditioned, sound-proof compartment created by Joseph Landless that fits over a full length bed. Landless invented the sleep booth to sequester himself from the light and noise of the daytime when he was on a nocturnal sleep schedule. In the winter, an electric heater can take the place of the cooling system.

We'll Never Win This War If We Aren't Well-Rested, May 1943
We’ll Never Win This War If We Aren’t Well-Rested, May 1943 Pop Sci Archives

Sleep, the secret weapon of the at-home warriors. PopSci did its patriotic duty by advising night-shift workers on how to get adequate Zs during the daytime. After a hard shift, to avoid “a nervous tiredness,” relax with some simple exercises and a warm shower. Then, muffle your telephone with a pillow (seen on the left) so you won’t be disturbed by the ringing. After all, it’s 1943. You can’t just put it on silent. Don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t eat a heavy dinner either. Instead, opt for “a healthful salad and a glass of milk.” After you set aside your glass, slip on an eye mask to more effectively block out the sun. We couldn’t seem to come to a conclusion on the optimal temperature for slumber. On one page we said “even a mild chilling, which may not awaken the sleeper, maybe enough to cause involuntary muscular tension.” Then on the very next page we claimed that “a room that is close or too warm will leave you feeling heavy and thick-headed when you get up.” So, do whatever you want, I guess.

The Secrets of Slumber, January 1957
The Secrets of Slumber, January 1957 Pop Sci Archives

What we knew about sleep in 1957:

  • People deprived of sleep showed no measurable physical effects. The main results of sleep deprivation showed in personality. After staying up two or three nights in a row, subjects in a study became “irritable, even cantankerous.”

  • It seems that we overestimated the amount of sleep you need in 1927, when Dr. Donald A. Laird said we don’t need more than six hours. Now, apparently, you only need five.

  • Your body temperature falls when you go to sleep, and rises when you wake up.

  • If you’re one of those people who claims you can’t get to sleep before 2 a.m., a physiologist in this article is calling you out: “The person who says he can’t go to sleep before two a.m. probably doesn’t have enough to do to make him healthily fatigued.”

  • If you want to be well rested, no cuddling. People sleep better alone than when sharing a bed.

  • Remember that Parisian beggar from a few slides ago whose head blood scientists watched ebb and flow? Apparently they came to the wrong conclusion. “It turns out that the amount of blood in the brain, if it changes it all during sleep, increases slightly.”

Dream Facts, May 1961
Dream Facts, May 1961 Pop Sci Archives

Here are some handy facts about dreams to keep in your back pocket for the next bar trivia night, from our 1961 article:

  • We spend 20 percent of our sleep time dreaming, and average four to seven dreams each night. Researchers discovered this by noticing a connection between jerky eye movements during sleep and a change in brain wave patterns.

  • Dreams tend to come regularly, every 90 minutes or so.

  • In an experiment where scientists repeatedly woke up volunteers as soon as they began to dream, the subjects became irritable during the day, even though they received the same amount of sleep as those who weren’t woken up. On following nights, they began more and more dreams, to make up for the ones they had lost.

  • Dreams last anywhere between nine minutes and an hour.

  • A third of dreams are in color, two-thirds in black and white. The youngs tend to dream in color more than the olds, which makes sense. Maybe the next generation will dream in 3D.