Intended for healthcare professionals

Views & Reviews Review of the Week

Sleep is the best medicine

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: (Published 06 December 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:1216
  1. Colin Martin, independent consultant in healthcare communication, London
  1. Cmpubrel{at}

    Colin Martin visits an exhibition that explores the biomedical and neurological processes that occur during the third of our lives when we are asleep

    “Good sleep is as important as diet or exercise in keeping us happy and healthy,” says Professor Kevin Morgan, director of the insomnia research programme at Loughborough University’s sleep research centre and participant in a forthcoming symposium in association with Sleeping and Dreaming, an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London. First shown at the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden, the exhibition encourages visitors to explore the biomedical and neurological processes that occur during the third of our lives when we are asleep, and the social and cultural aspects of sleep and dreams.

    Five major themes are developed using 250 objects, drawn from science, art, and social history collections, displayed in a dark, dramatically lit rectangular space. Smaller rooms, opening off the central space, cover subsidiary themes in greater depth. Because of the choices provided, no two visitors are likely to have identical experiences, in much the same way that their dreams differ, even though their lives might be similar. Designed as a labyrinthine sequence, the exhibition’s form mimics many unknown aspects of its content.

    The “Dead Tired” section explores sleep deprivation, including attempts on the world record for staying awake. It is held by American student Randy Gardner, who clocked up 264 sleepless hours over the new year of 1963-4, breaking the previous record of 201 hours, set by American disc jockey Peter Tripp in 1959. Both men experienced hallucinations and became grumpy; however, unlike Tripp, Gardner did not take any stimulants, claiming his feat was “just mind over matter.” My poor performance, on a “Test your tiredness” computer programme designed to evaluate attentiveness, was attributable to jet lag, as I had flown from Melbourne to London less than 24 hours before. This section covers other states of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, such as hypnosis, fainting, and anaesthesia.

    “A World Without Sleep?” examines how artificial lighting changed our sleeping habits and work patterns. It documents experiments, including US scientists Nathaniel Kleitman and Bruce Richardson’s investigation of whether the 24 hour cycle of sleep and wakefulness could be influenced by changes in light or temperature, undertaken in a Kentucky cave over 33 days in 1938. Richardson adjusted his body to a rhythm of 28 hours (nine hours asleep, 19 hours awake); Kleitman, however, did not.

    Dedicating rooms solely to sleeping is a relatively new phenomenon, which is explored in “Elusive Sleep.” Theo Frey’s black and white photographs, of a young girl receiving a bed for herself in 1955, following the Swiss Red Cross’s campaign to improve children’s sleeping conditions, exemplify social and cultural changes associated with sleeping. There’s also an instance of life imitating art. What at first glance appears to be a photograph of German performance artist Joseph Beuys wearing his trademark felt hat, carrying a mattress on his back through an alpine landscape, is actually Frey’s photograph of a farmer taking his bed with him to ensure that he would get a good night’s sleep while his livestock grazed their summer pastures.

    “Dream Worlds” looks at how artists derive creative ideas from nocturnal inspiration. For several years Jane Gifford’s work has been exclusively concerned with dreams and ways of recording and perceiving them. Dream Paintings 2004 records 144 dreams she had that year, in a series of small paintings hung together as a grid, with text describing the dream depicted. Rodney Graham’s film Halcion Sleep 1994 shows the artist, clad in striped pyjamas and fast asleep on the back seat of a car, being driven through Vancouver after having taken a Halcion (triazolam) sleeping pill. Images of the urban landscape appear dreamlike in the car’s rear window, even though what the artist dreamt is unknown.

    The exhibition is complemented by a book of essays on sleeping and dreaming, edited by Nadine Käthe Monem, with a wide ranging selection of literary excerpts and quotes chosen by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, including “Sleep is the best medicine,” an English proverb that says much about our belief in its restorative power in five simple words.