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Summary

Shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2021

In Sweden, refugee children fall asleep for months and years at a time. In Upstate New York, high school students develop contagious seizures. In the US embassy in Cuba, employees complain of headaches and memory loss after hearing strange noises in the night. 

These disparate cases are some of the most remarkable diagnostic mysteries of the 21st century, as both doctors and scientists have struggled to explain them within the boundaries of medical science and - more crucially - to treat them. What unites them is that they are all examples of a particular type of psychosomatic illness: medical disorders that are influenced as much by the idiosyncratic aspects of individual cultures as they are by human biology. 

Inspired by a poignant encounter with the sleeping refugee children of Sweden, Wellcome Prize-winning neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan travels the world to visit other communities who have also been subject to outbreaks of so-called ‘mystery’ illnesses. 

From a derelict post-Soviet mining town in Kazakhstan, to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua via an oil town in Texas, to the heart of the Maria Mountains in Colombia, O’Sullivan hears remarkable stories from a fascinating array of people and attempts to unravel their complex meaning while asking the question: who gets to define what is and what isn’t an illness? 

Reminiscent of the work of Oliver Sacks, Stephen Grosz and Henry Marsh, The Sleeping Beauties is a moving and unforgettable scientific investigation with a very human face.

©2021 Suzanne O'Sullivan (P)2021 Macmillan Publishers International Ltd

Critic reviews

"In my view the best science writer around - a true descendant of Oliver Sacks." (Sathnam Sanghera, author of The Boy with the Topknot)

"It is in every sense, mind-blowing." (Daily Telegraph)

"Neurologist Suzanne O'Sullivan takes us on a tour of puzzling and seemingly inexplicable illnesses, including a sleeping sickness that affects refugee children in Sweden, severe headaches afflicting embassy staff in Cuba and mass outbreaks of fainting among Colombian schoolgirls. It's utterly fascinating, and told with extraordinary compassion." (Alex Fowler, Financial Times)

"A study of diseases that we sometimes say are 'all in the mind', and an explanation of how unfair that characterisation is." (Tom Whipple, The Times Books of the Year)

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A holistic take on psychosomatic illness

A culture-sensitive perspective on psychosomatic illness and how internal conflict may express itself in various cultures thus showing the limitations of a strictly western approach to mental health and medicine in general. I was first put off by the narration but got used to it in the end - and there is certainly a benefit to knowing that the words are being uttered by the author herself. Compelling and thought-provoking!

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Still a sceptic

I liked the book as entertainment. It is easy listen for long autumn/winter days like this but I'm not totally in agreement with this hypothesis. I still believe there definitely are environmental factors causing the Kaluch village in Kazakhstan to fall asleep. I didn't find any informations of Krasnigrod as mentioned in this book. I might not pay attention completely and that's another point there. The book could be better if it was shorter. I got bored after about 5 hours into it. The last three hours I listened when cooking because it wasn't even worth it to listen to it while I try relax in bed before sleep. I wanted that to be finally over. There are few but very few cases of people who have conversion disorder here and it is not properly described. it lack depth on description of these non epileptic convulsions for a general listener and not a medical doctor. So it's interesting but it will leave you with a research project for later. I can't give it 5 stars for the lack of informations as I though I'm buying something much more comprehensive as the length suggested so I'm little disappointed after all. And I must admit that it's personal why I don't agree on her hypothesis because I had these symptoms myself after they made new insulation on the school building. I slept almost constantly and I had abnormal findings on eeg but the doctors didn't know what it was because it wasn't typical epilepsy. my incranial pressure was also elevated.i still have problems 13 years later but I have realised one connection recently due to this book while I do have emotional baggage I also got suspicion after watching YouTube video on the matter in Kazakhstan it really has to do with the building. I come from post Soviet country. secondly girl in my class died suddenly while celebrating the graduation on graduation party toilet. The school was shocked. Parents were shocked and doctors found no specific cause. She also had brain swelling but I consider myself lucky I left the school once these symptoms begin and I got better but it's slow progress. it gets worse and better. I'm hoping to get sleep study soon. I was very unhappy with my devotion to quit the school until now but now it put me to peace I did right thing and there will be doctors who will say it's coincidence but I realised most medical doctors know very little about toxins in the environment as this particular specialist seems too.

2 people found this helpful

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Simply brilliant

Suzanne O’Sullivan has again written the most intriguing and intelligent book on functional neurological disorders. I work in musculoskeletal medicine and so it is particularly relevant to me and the patients I see. She takes the reader (listener) on a journey through several patient group stories and initially it is harder to see the links. By the end of the book it all clearly comes together. Her explanations of FND are non judgemental and supportive and I share her frustration of over medicalisation that fails to help patients. This is an important read for clinicians across disciplines as well as anyone non medical seeking to understand how the brain works to produce perceived illness.

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The importance of community and listening

A brilliant book which explores people’s stories and how they must be seen in the context of their community and how western medicine often fails to allow for this risking over diagnosis and over medicalisation

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New Neurology or Old Medicine

Modern Neurology explained to an old doctor who would have been frustrated and short of temper with these patients!

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Interesting subject matter

Well researched , fascinating subject . Narration monotone , this makes it difficult to concentrate , best listened to in short bursts up

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An amazing look at the power of the mind in physical illness

Suzanne beautifully explores and explains very difficult concepts in an understanding, compassionate but unflinching way. I wish everyone would read and understand this book

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So well written

found this book absolutely fascinating. you can't separate the mind from the body x

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fascinating book

loved it, in particular last chapter on what is normal
, well read by author