“Did Dante Alighieri Suffer From a Sleep Disorder?” by Henry Nicholls

“I was at a conference, standing in the queue for coffee during a break between sessions, and the woman in front of me went down. As she fell, she resembled a push puppet, one of those little elasticated toys that collapses when you press the button on the base. It all happened very quickly, but if it had been possible to slow down the motion, I would have seen her head drop first, chin onto chest, her shoulders relax, arms flop to her sides, and legs buckle.

[. . .]

“This is cataplexy, a condition in which emotions can cause the body’s muscles to fail; it affects many people with narcolepsy. Nathaniel Kleitman understood the difference between narcolepsy (the sleep) and cataplexy (the collapsing fits) only too well. ‘Boredom and monotony favor narcolepsy; gaiety and excitement, cataplexy,’ he wrote in Sleep and Wakefulness.

[. . .]

“Giuseppe Plazzi, head of the sleep lab at the University of Bologna, has argued that Dante Alighieri might have suffered from narcolepsy with cataplexy all the way back in the 14th century, as his autobiographical masterpiece The Divine Comedy features most of the symptoms, including cataplexy. In the middle of his journey through Hell, for instance, Dante hears the tragic love story of two lost spirits and collapses. ‘I fainted out of pity, and, as if l were dying, fell, as a dead body falls.’

“The idea that Dante suffered from narcolepsy is certainly intriguing, but most sleep specialists—including Plazzi—date the first unequivocal description of cataplexy to 1877, when German psychiatrist Karl Westphal presented a case at a meeting of the Berlin Medical and Psychological Society. [. . .]”   –Henry Nicholls, “Did Dante Alighieri Suffer From a Sleep Disorder?” LitHub (September 7, 2018)

The passage is an excerpt from Nicholls’s 2018 book Sleepyhead: The Neuroscience of A Good Night’s Rest.

See also the related discussion from The Guardian, posted here.