Robert Macnish and The Philosophy of Sleep

Robert Macnish (1802-1837) was a Glaswegian physician highly interested in altered states of consciousness. Most famously, he wrote a book titled “The Anatomy of Drunkenness”, but he was equally attracted to the phenomenon of sleep and dreaming. Such was his fascination with the topic that he wrote a book about it, of which he published two versions: one in 1830 and another in 1834.

"The Philosophy of Sleep" by Robert Macnish, 1834

“The Philosophy of Sleep” by Robert Macnish, 1834

Macnish introduced the phenomenon of sleep as:

[T]he intermediate state between wakefulness and death: wakefulness being regarded as the active state of all the animal and intelectual functions, and death as that of their total suspension. … Complete sleep is a temporary metaphysical death, though not an organic one-the heart and lungs performing their offices with their accustomed regularity under the control of the involuntary muscles.” P. 2

He believed that the main object of sleep was, “to restore the strength expended during wakefulness; to recruit the body by promoting nutrition and giving rest to the msucles; and to renovate the mind by the repose which it affords the brain.” p. 41
But what scientific explanation of sleep did he put forward?

“The Philosophy of Sleep” was actually a popular phrenological text. (Phrenology was the science of localized function in the brain which became popularised in the 1930s.) Although the first edition of the book only made a few occasional references to phrenology, the 1834 edition was full of phrenological discourse and drew heavily from this field to explain sleep, arguing that all kinds of sleep disorders like nightmares, sleepwalking and sleeplessness were caused by conflicting organs of the brain (although he didn’t specify which of these organs were responsible for sleep).

In perfect sleep, as we have elsewhere stated, there is a quiescence of all the organs which compose the brain; but when, in consequence of some inward excitement, one organ or more continues awake, while the remainder are in repose, a state of incomplete sleep is the result, and we have the phenomena of dreaming. If, for instance, any irritation, such as pain, fever, drunkenness, or a heavy meal, should throw the perceptive organs into a state of action while the reflecting ones continue asleep, we have a consciousness of objects, colours, or sounds being presented to us, just as if the former organs were actually stimulated by having such impressions communicated to them by the external senses; while in consequence of the repose of the reflecting organs, we are unable to rectify the illusions, and conceive that the scenes passing before us, or the sounds that we hear, have a real existence. This want of mutual co-operation between the different organs of the brain accounts for the disjointed nature, the absurdities, and incoherencies of dreams. (p.43-44)

Macnish’s explanation of what dreams were was very similar to our own current understanding of them: “I believe that dreams are uniformly the resuscitation or re-embodiment of thoughts which have formerly, in some shape or other, occupied the mind. They are old ideas revived either in an entire state, or heterogeneously mingled together.” p.49

Robert Macnish. Lithograph by D. Maclise, 1883.

Robert Macnish. Lithograph by D. Maclise, 1883.

Macnish enumerated the factors that would bring about the onset of sleep, which were many: a heavy meal, heat, cold, a monotnous conversation (including “a heated church and a dull sermon”), narcotics, and “anything which mechanically determines the blood to the brain”, like tumbling around. He also offered remedies for anyone suffering from sleeplessness:  avoiding stimulant drinks, keeping the sleeping chamber room dark, avoiding excessive exercise, mainting a cheerful mood, and avoiding any unpleasant emotions or fantatic images before bedtime. If this advice didn’t work, Macnish suggested taking opim, morphine, hyosciamus or a ‘pillow’ of hops (a small dose before bedtime, which apparently was very succesfull in relieving King George III of his sleeplessness).

Although “The Philosophy of Sleep” was a detailed monograph on sleep and its functions – and a fascinating example of how the science of phrenology was used to explain the phenomenon – sleeping (and the disorders that often accompanied it) was still largely defined as an experience rather than considered to be a source of study.

Read the full text here for free.


Macnish, Robert (1834). The Philospophy of Sleep. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Kroker, Kenton (2007) The Sleep of Others and the Transformations of Sleep Research. Tornonto, buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press


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