Suzana Herculano-Houzel


Here I am once again on a plane heading for the USA, to do my work on how many neurons it takes to build a monkey brain. An old monkey when it comes to long journeys, after seven years living abroad, I took advantage of the ease of buying tickets online to secure the place where I’ve learned it’s easiest to sleep on a plane: the window.

Sleeping in the clouds requires dealing with the unfavorable combination of limited space, anxiety, insufficient time and people wanting you to get up to let them go to the bathroom. As if that weren’t enough, I’ve just realized from my window seat that the task is made even more complicated by one of the peculiarities of sleep: the period of REM sleep, with the rapid eye movements that give it its name and vivid dreams, which sets in every 90 minutes or so of sleep.

The problem with REM sleep for those who travel by plane – and can’t afford business class, of course – is that during this period, in order to prevent the body from obeying the dream orders and enacting each one, the brain blocks all the motor neurons that command muscle contractions. The result is known as sleep paralysis: the total muscle flaccidity that, in our beds, makes the body relax completely and guarantees the safety of both the dreamer and the person sleeping next to them – and, on the plane, makes your head fall off every time you start dreaming. Sleeping on an airplane is a form of self-torture in which sleep itself, due to the inadequate position of the body, causes us to wake up.

Hence the value of that curious accessory, the collar-shaped pillow that Americans like to wear around their necks, which prevents the head from tipping sideways. Very useful, by the way, for children on car journeys. I, however, prefer to settle for the window. I’ve learned that a jacket folded under the pillow can hold it in place against the window and, if you can twist yourself around in the chair and your legs are a bit flexible, you can rest the tips of your feet on the arm of the front seat, between the window and the armchair, so that your legs lock under their own weight when paralyzed by REM sleep.

I wake up for breakfast and see that my strategy has worked, because I’ve managed at least one long dream. And when it doesn’t work, there is at least one advantage to sitting by the window: the privilege of seeing the Marvelous City from the sky!

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo in September 2007

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