Friday Weird Science: The Narcoleptic dog in your Disney film.

Oct 07 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science

You know, you'd think after that HUGE pile of weird science blogging I just did for the IgNobels, I might need some time away from weird science.  And heck, you might be right.  But I got this paper a few weeks ago from Jason of The Thoughtful Animal, and it's just too brilliant not to share.  The things I do for all of you. 🙂

This paper might be about sleep disorders, but I really have to wonder if some poor scientist had a 4-5 year old child, obsessed with Disney, and being forced to watch the endless repetitions of animated characters tap-dancing their way across the screen, just couldn't take it anymore.  That scientist had to do some SCIENCE.  Or at least some analysis.  And if you can't analyze anything else, well you can always analyze your Disney films!

Iranzo et al. "REM sleep behavior disorder and other sleep disturbances in Disney animated films" Sleep Medicine, 2007

There are many known kinds of sleep disturbances.  The one I hear about most these days is sleep apnea, or when you stop breathing for periods during sleep, but certainly I also hear a lot about insomnia, narcolepsy, nightmares, sleep-talking, sleep-walking, and the list goes on.  Sleep disturbances and behaviors are so common that they are part of our common vocabulary, and most people don't really think of them in scientific terms at all.  Instead, we think of them as part of our general behavioral set.  In fact, people refer to sleep disorders so often that they are commonly used for things like movies to provide suspense or fear (nightmares), advance the plot (dreams, for example), to provoke curiosity or for comedic effect (like active dreaming or narcolepsy).

Sleep disorders were used in literature and performance long before they were ever classified in psychology or the medical literature.  Shakespeare referred to insomnia in plays like Macbeth, and dreams were often used as plot devices in ancient Greek plays.  And then of course, there's Disney.  While one of these authors was possibly watching Cinderella on repeat with their 5 year old, they couldn't help but notice that one of the characters, the dog Bruno, had some rather vivid dreams:

Cinderella: Bruno, Bruno!  (the sleeping dog is dreaming, moving his body and barking in his sleep. He wakes up)  Dreaming again?  Chasing Lucifer? Catch him this time? (Bruno nods and smiles) That's bad.  Suppose they heard you upstairs?  You know the orders.  So if you don't want to lose that nice, warm bed, you'd better get rid of those dreams.

(This does make me wonder if maybe Cinderella was a little less dreamy and optimistic than we usually think.)

The authors note that Cinderella premiered three years BEFORE REM sleep was discovered, the sleep during which we do most of our dreaming. And Cinderella isn't the only Disney movie with vigorously dreaming dogs.  There's Lady and the Tramp

The Fox and the Hound, and many more.  Donald sleepwalks, Gepetto snores, and even the owl Archimedes suffers from excessive daytime sleepiness in my personal favorite "The Sword and the Stone".  And of course, who could ever forget Sleepy?

If that's not chronic hypersomnia, I don't know what is.

The authors notes that the animators behind most of these characters had a pretty clear idea of what these sleep disorder should look like, and suggest that Disney animators may have been more aware of sleep disturbances than most, at a time before these disturbances were characterized.  Me, I think that's going more than a little far.  Sure, the animators were good observers of human nature. But so are the rest of us!  We recognize these sleep patterns for what they are when we observe them, or we wouldn't be able to interpret them in movies in the way they were intended.  Just because it's not been classified in the medical literature yet doesn't mean we don't recognize a dream when we see one, or know that narcolepsy probably isn't normal.  I think the depictions of sleep in Disney films (and in loads of other films and books) instead depict something we all recognize, forms of sleep that we may or may not have experienced, but certainly have heard about.  But if you're stuck watching Disney movies over and over with your kids, keep an eye out!  You might find some more science in there.

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