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  • The Sleep of Others and the Transformations of Sleep Research
  • Erika Dyck (bio)
Kenton Kroker . The Sleep of Others and the Transformations of Sleep Research. University of Toronto Press. 2007. viii, 533. $49.95

Kroker's exhaustively researched examination of sleep sits at the crossroads of history and philosophy of science, intellectual history, and sociology of [End Page 413] scientific knowledge. Combining elements from each of these academic traditions, The Sleep of Others offers readers a comprehensive explanation for how sleep became the object of scientific fascination and medical scrutiny. But, read slightly differently, sleep in this book also functions as a metaphorical window into the broader history of medicine. In this way, sleep occupies territory similar to that of disease; some recent disease biographies have traced the medicalization of particular behavioural phenomena, and in so doing illustrate how philosophical and scientific paradigms had to shift before a particular disease came under the medical gaze as a disease entity. Although sleep stands apart from most diseases and disorders as a natural, indeed critical, part of health, Kroker shows how its evolution as a scientific object nonetheless shared a similar pattern and how sleep disorders arose instead as a viable set of medicalized abnormalities.

This ambitious investigation recounts sleep research from ancient Athens to the late twentieth century. Kroker deftly demonstrates how the subject of sleep, even before it was studied in a focused way, has historically occupied an ambiguous place in medicine. Its rather mysterious role, whether in calibrating bodily rhythms or producing dreams (which created entire subdisciplines), or for achieving higher levels of relaxation, nonetheless engaged philosophers, scientists, and physicians in spirited conversations that often centred on consciousness and being. Debates over the function of consciousness and its relationship to memory and behaviour seemed to dominate discussions until the mid-nineteenth century, as it became clear a new kind of scientific medicine - one defined in part by laboratories, medical specialization, and new technologies - guided inquiries of human behaviour, including sleep.

Drawing on a dizzying amount of detail, regarding names, dates, funding sources, personal and professional networks, pedigrees, and more, Kroker provides a close reading of how the topic of sleep engaged thinkers across a broad span of time. For roughly the first half of the book, which covers the period up to the early twentieth century, sleep is entangled in debates over mind and body. Dreams were a critical component of these developments, while their meanings - both their very existence as well as the interpretations of individual dreams - remain hotly contested. Dreams seemed to offer a link to studies of consciousness, subconsciousness, and even unconscious behaviour, each of which was believed to reveal important insights into basic human psychology and physiology.

The second half of the book concentrates on the late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies of sleep when the subject more frequently fell into the domain of psychiatry, and from there it followed a more familiar trajectory of disease construction, classification, experiment, and treatment. By this time, sleep had emerged as an object subject to classification along normal and abnormal categories. Abnormal sleep was increasingly pathologized, particularly as insomnia, and then treated using accoutrements from [End Page 414] modern scientific medicine, including sleep labs and monitoring equipment. Another mark of medical science appeared in the way that personal experience, including the sleeper's, was pushed aside to make room for a more authoritative instrument or voice drawn from a machine or expert who evaluated sleep at a level that the sleeper herself could not appreciate. As sleep then became an object that could be understood scientifically, it emerged as a medical problem. Reinterpreted as a potential problem, sleep disorders then merged with public health campaigns, addiction studies, legal debates over health regulations and treatment regimes, and medical professional turf wars over jurisdictional responsibilities for diseases such as sleeping sickness, insomnia, and sleep apnea.

At times it was difficult for this reader to stay abreast of all of the names, acronyms, research centres, and funding sources necessary to follow the important threads and relationships that weave this historical tapestry together. At its core, however, The Sleep of Others shows how sleep and the process of its objectification...


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pp. 413-415
Launched on MUSE
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