The little we know about sleep is overshadowed by the mysteries we have not unlocked. Nevertheless, we continue to wreak havoc on our natural circadian rhythms in the name of material and technological progress.
Our compulsive drive for new and improved products, smaller iPods and faster Internet connections means we've ended up with longer working weeks and more stress - and progress is now measured by the rising incidence of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders.
As the number of overtired and overwrought Canadians reaches epidemic proportions, increased pressure will be put on our beleaguered health care system and, oddly, there will also be some implications for the administration of criminal justice.
Last week, Peter Polansky, a member of the Canadian Davis Cup tennis team, sustained serious injuries plunging from a third-floor hotel window in Mexico while sleepwalking.
The most interesting question facing criminal justice in the era of sleep deprivation is how to deal with a potential increase in criminal acts committed by sleepwalkers. And sleepwalkers can commit rather intricate acts of violence.
In 1987, Kenneth Park, while sleepwalking, drove 23 kilometres down the 401, entered his in-laws' home, took knives from their kitchen and brutally killed his father-in-law and seriously injured his mother-in-law.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that acts committed during somnambulism are not voluntary and are also not the product of any recognizable mental disorder. Thus, Park was acquitted of murder and attempted murder.
In ruling that sleepwalkers are not criminally responsible for their violent acts, the Court took some comfort in the testimony of sleep disorder experts who concluded that violence during somnambulism is a statistically rare occurrence.
Maybe so, but in November of last year, Jan Luedecke was acquitted of sexual assault on the basis of sleepwalking. After being awake for close to 24 hours and consuming copious amounts of alcohol at a croquet party, Luedecke fell asleep on the same couch as the sleeping victim.
The trial judge found that the victim "was abruptly jolted out of her sleep to find a man on top of her having sexual relations with her.'
Luedecke's claim of unconscious sex was supported by a family history of sleep disorders and by brainwave measurements taken at a sleep clinic lab. The expert for the defence testified that the accused suffered from "sexsomnia,' a term he coined to describe sexual activity committed by a sleepwalker.
British shrinks apparently take an entirely different view and have concluded that sleepwalking is a disease of the mind in which violence is likely to recur. In British courts, the sleepwalker is found not guilty by reason of insanity and is often confined in a psychiatric hospital, whereas the Canadian sleepwalker gets to go home to sleep. Perhaps Park and Luedecke cannot be held responsible for their crimes, but there is something disconcerting about sending these somnambulists back to the scene of the crime: their beds.
The medical and scientific understanding of sleep and its impairment is underdeveloped and confused, so it isn't surprising that the law has few creative, or effective, tools.
Criminal justice in the era of sleep deprivation may not be flooded with sleepwalking criminals, but there is cause for concern when it comes to industrial accidents and driving fatalities. Despite the attention paid to drunken driving, fatigue has always been the primary cause of driving impairment. If you put a lot of sleepy Canadians on the streets, you'll get a lot of careless- and dangerous-driving charges.
It's not surprising that many horrible environmental disasters, like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, have taken place in the wee hours of the morning, when fatigue takes its greatest toll.
Carnage on the roads and workplace error may also be accompanied by a rising incidence of street fights and domestic abuse as irritable, sleep-deprived Canadians become less tolerant of slight provocations. A sleepy world will not be a peaceful world.
And will judges have the energy to deal with a glut of new cases? In the last few years there have been more cases in which judges or jurors have fallen asleep at critical moments in criminal trials.
In 2004, Judge John Moore of the Court of Queen's Bench in Alberta apologized for falling asleep during the trial of a suspected drug dealer. He fell asleep during a rather insignificant part of the trial - the testimony of the accused! He snored, and yet he still convicted.
In 2003, a conviction was overturned on appeal because Judge Ayres Couto fell asleep during the cross-examination of the complainant in a stalking trial at Old City Hall. The prosecutor and defence counsel weren't sure how to proceed, and decided to wake the judge by dropping a heavy, hardcover version of the Criminal Code on the creaky floor.
At least we can thank Parliament for creating so many criminal laws that the Code is heavy enough to wake a sleep-deprived judge.
Alan Young is a professor of law at Osgoode Hall. His column appears every other week.