Perhaps because we all need sleep, we have an enduring interest in tales of people who sleep continuously or cannot stay awake – popular characters such as Sleeping Beauty and Rip Van Winkle are just two examples.
Totally somnolent characters in films, such as Rat Race (2001), Moulin Rouge! (2001) or Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999) all highlight our fascination – and amusement – with such sleepy individuals. But funny as they may seem, the sad fact is that these characters are all almost certainly based on the medical condition known as narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is characterised by a constant, irrepressible need for sleep. The disorder affects about one in 3,000 people, mostly starting in teenage years.
It was first named by a French physician, Jean-Baptiste-Édouard Gélineau, from the Greek terms for “stupor” and “seizures”. Gélineau also observed cataplexy, which is the hallmark of classic narcolepsy.
Cataplexy entails loss of muscle activity in the face or body – resulting in sagging of the head to full body collapse to the ground – triggered by strong emotional responses, such as laughter. One of Gélineau’s patients reported collapsing to the ground at the Paris Zoo watching monkeys making faces.