To Sleep, Perchance To Lose Your Edge?

By Dennis Drabelle
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The insomniac as hero -- that's how I think of W.C. Fields. When chronic lack of sleep wore the comedian down during a film shoot, he would repair to his trailer for a few winks (supplemented, no doubt, by a few swigs from the bottle). For Fields, who wrote his own scripts, sleep was the Great Eluder, and his struggles to catch up with it inspired an unforgettable scene in his best movie, "It's a Gift" (1934).

One night, Harold Bissonette (Fields) sneaks out on his nagging wife and beds down on the porch swing outside their apartment. In the next dozen minutes, he becomes a nocturnal Job, beleaguered by animate and inanimate forces: The swing collapses; the grocer's boy delivers clinking bottles of milk; a coconut bounces down the stairs; a salesman comes looking for a Carl La Fong, whose name he spells out repeatedly and loudly. The cacophony goes on, and poor Bissonette never does get to sleep.

The film's title can be puzzling unless taken ironically, as a comment on Bissonette's ability to slough off irritations by the score -- all contributing to the scourge of sleeplessness -- without losing his temper.

Yet there's another possible reading. Whether a habitually sound sleeper could have thought up that series of anti-sleep roadblocks is dubious. Working as a creative artist, Fields might be hinting that a condition most of us would regard as a curse can actually be a help. Studies show that as many as 20 percent of Americans suffer from insomnia or other sleep disorders, and I use the term "suffer" advisedly. Virtually nobody rejoices in sleeplessness, and it can be a sign of more serious problems, such as depression. But could it be that for some people, with W.C. Fields heading the list, insomnia is something to profit from rather than to fight and suppress?

Fields wasn't the only creative person who regularly had trouble sleeping. A Web site lists 10 famous insomniacs -- Fields, Marlene Dietrich, Amy Lowell, Alexandre Dumas, Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead, Franz Kafka, Theodore Roosevelt, Groucho Marx and Mark Twain -- and could have stretched to many more. Groucho once tried to beat insomnia by taking a hot bath in water scented with pine needles; he nodded off in the tub and woke up with a mouthful of water. Vladimir Nabokov admitted to being "a poor go-to-sleeper" but construed his balkiness as a kind of war on sleep, which he resented for taking him away from conscious life. Garland and Marilyn Monroe popped pills to combat their insomnia, with -- in combination with other pills -- fatal results.

As an insomniac myself (though neither a creative genius nor a glamour puss), I often go to bed with drooping eyelids, only to find a few minutes later that my brain is on the boil with ideas for articles I might pitch to editors or directions in which I might take the one I'm currently writing. (Sometimes the boil churns up other subjects, such as the perfect reply to the salesclerk who was rude to me that day, or the outcome of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game I've just watched on ESPN, but for purposes of this article we can put those aside.)

Like several other writers I know, I keep a pad and pencil on my night table; when a promising notion hits, I switch the lamp on and scribble down a phrase or two for later retrieval. Sometimes this urge is more in the nature of nuts and bolts, as described so well by Evelyn Waugh in his novel "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold": "There were periods of literary composition when [Pinfold] would find the sentences he had written during the day running in his head, the words shifting and changing color kaleidoscopically, so that he would again and again climb out of bed, pad down to the library, make a minute correction, return to his room, lie in the dark dazzled by the pattern of vocables until obliged once more to descend to the manuscript."

Pinfold took a prescribed sedative, and I take over-the-counter melatonin, but lately I've been wondering if I should bother taking anything at all -- if, a la W.C. Fields, my insomnia might not be a gift.

Apart From the Rest

The notion that insomnia might have a use is counterintuitive. Conventional wisdom insists that to perform at your best -- as a student facing a test, an athlete preparing for a game, a lawyer scheduled to argue in court, etc. -- you need a good night's sleep. (As an insomniac, however, I might point out that all this harping on the efficacy of sleep only compounds the problem: How in blazes can you get a good night's sleep when you're worried about getting a good night's sleep and doing your best in that exam or soccer tournament or hearing? For the hard-of-sleeping, it's sometimes a tossup as to which is heavier, the pressure to sleep well or the pressure to do well in the activity being slept for.)

The common-sense view got some scientific validation in 2004, when researchers at the University of Luebeck in Germany gave two sets of subjects a math problem to solve. As reported in the journal Nature, one group was allowed to sleep for eight hours before the test, while the other group was kept awake. The problem had a trick to it, a mathematical shortcut, which 59 percent of the rested subjects spotted and exploited while only about 25 percent of the tired ones did. Other studies, according to Kevin Quinn, head of the sleep-research program at the National Institute of Mental Health, have shown that a good night's sleep is important for consolidating what you've already learned: say, the uses of the French subjunctive to which you were introduced in class earlier that day.

Common sense might also tell us that those lucky people who don't need a lot of Z's get more done than "greedy" sleepers by virtue of having a longer day to work with. Not necessarily so, according to Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. "The total sleep requirement for humans varies from four hours a night on the short end to 10 hours on the long end," he said. "This is genetically determined. Researchers tried to correlate the short-enders with productivity and discovered that there are no differences between them and the long-enders." The early bird may get the first worm, in other words, but there will be other worms, and long, late sleepers will get their full share, too.

Could common sense fail us again when we try to discern a relationship between insomnia and making something new rather than answering somebody else's questions or solving prepared problems? Here the scientific literature is skimpy, but one recent study suggests that insomnia and originality might go hand in hand. In keeping with the study's iconoclastic thrust, the title presents the hypothesis as a question: "Could Creativity Be Associated With Insomnia?" Its authors, Dione Healey of the University of Canterbury and Mark A. Runco of California State University at Fullerton, worked with 60 New Zealand children between the ages of 10 and 12, half of whom scored in the 90th percentile or better on a standard creativity test, while the other half fell short of that mark. The researchers had the kids fill out questionnaires designed to elicit their sleeping habits. "Seventeen of the 30 highly creative children showed signs of sleep disturbance," Healey and Runco reported last year in the Creativity Research Journal, "whereas only eight of the control children showed signs of sleep disturbance."

This is a tantalizing result, but as the authors themselves note, it leaves certain key questions unanswered. Is insomnia the price some creative people must pay to activate their muse -- no insomnia, no brainstorms? Or does insomnia keep them from being even more creative by depriving them of sleep's full refreshment -- no insomnia, more and better brainstorms? And in real life, as opposed to the psych lab, is insomnia perhaps more often neither a cause of nor a penalty for the onset of creativity but simply a side effect of getting too wrapped up in the process once it has started -- being, like Waugh's Pinfold, unable to turn off the mental valves you flipped on earlier in the day?

Warped Perception?

The answers to such questions could make a big difference, for insomnia tends to feed on itself. The more you worry about it, that is, the more power it can exert over you. But if insomnia is an outlet for connections not made during our upright hours, a dredging-up process for ideas we didn't realize we had in us, then we probably shouldn't fight it, or at least not so vehemently. Insomnia may be not only what we make of it, but also what we tell ourselves about it.

And we may have a lot of freedom in that regard, for it's hard to imagine where researchers might go next. How would you design an experiment to show whether sleep-starved Novelist X would write better books if he started sinking contentedly into the arms of Morpheus every night? Or, conversely, whether Ad Executive Y is squandering her potential because she falls asleep easily, thereby missing out on those flashes of insight that accompany tossing and turning?

A fellow like W.C. Fields might want to be protective of his insomnia, which likely gave him (and us) that sublime scene in "It's a Gift." And he's not the only one for whom chronic sleeplessness has been a kind of golden goose. Last year Alan Berliner made "Wide Awake," a documentary about his 40-year battle with insomnia. Also last year, BBC Radio broadcast a play, "The Verb," by Janice Kerbel, said to be about "insomnia, and how love, wakefulness and sleep are intertwined." (Given that the play's characters are three nocturnal plants, one wonders how literally to take that word "intertwined.")

But the question is a harder one for insomniacs who don't write about or otherwise exploit their condition professionally: whether to risk hobbling their muse by seeking treatment, which often will come in the form of sleeping pills, with side effects that can include next-day sluggishness. When I put it to Carolyn See, a veteran of sleep wars who has written several novels and reviewed a book a week in The Post's Style section for almost two decades, she didn't have to think about her answer. Now taking a prescribed medication to get to sleep, she has endured enough restless nights (and been productive enough as an artist) to know what she wants. "If not sleeping would give me a chance to meet Jesus Christ for lunch," she said, "I'd have to pass on that lunch."

For myself, I've decided to stick with the melatonin but not to perceive the problem as one for which my doctor might prescribe something stronger. "In our sleep clinic we see lots of people who have insomnia and function at a high level," Mahowald noted. "The only trouble is, they feel miserable during the day."

"Miserable" would be overstating it in my case, though from time to time I feel decidedly grumpy after having lost another round with sleep. I hesitate to call my insomnia an out-and-out gift, but I suspect it's come to my aid enough times in my career that I'm not ready to beat it into submission just yet. ยท

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World at The Post.

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