OneWaking up at 4.30 the next morning, my four-year-old son and my wife crawled into bed with me to wake me up from my sleep (happens more or less at night), and I found myself sitting up and not reading enough to affect sleep. It made me stupider, fatter, happier, poorer, sicker, sexier, and more likely to get cancer, Alzheimer’s, and die in car crashes. Meanwhile, my lack of sleep has been slowly but inexorably shrinking a) my chances of living into my 60s, and b) my testicles.
why do we sleep Neuroscientist Matthew Walker — my poorly chosen little time reading — is full of amazing information about the effects of suboptimal levels of eye closure. This is not a book you should even think about in bed, let alone read. If allowed to sleep wasn’t too disturbing at first, it would have been a nightmare. The margins in my copy of the review, scribbled in the wobbly hands of a man who accepted dark hints of his own terrible fate – “OMFG”; “This is too bad!” – than some sort of mysterious Lo Fwcraftian magic book, which doesn’t seem very suitable for an amiable popular science book.
Walker’s title is misleading – as he himself states in the first few pages, it suggests that there may be only one reason we sleep. In fact, he sees sleep as a panacea for a dizzying array of conditions that would otherwise lead to a slow deterioration of the mind and body. In an interesting piece, he describes it as if to sell a new drug:
Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that could make you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more attractive. It keeps you slim and reduces food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It can prevent colds and flu. It can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?
Well, yes, I am very interested in this miracle drug. The problem, though, is that you get to grips with these things. Being kneeled on the spine by a four-year-old late at night proved to be the smallest. By the time I read Walker’s book, the whole of modernity showed me a huge, many palpable conspiracy against sleep. One of the real strengths of this book is that it clearly illuminates the extent of the damage done by our collective ignorance of the importance and complexity of sleep in our lives, and the difficulty many of us have in getting it.
In terms of our natural tendency to sleep, people can be divided into two broad categories, or “chronotypes”: early larks and night owls. Each group operates on a different circadian rhythm, and owls have very little to be larks—unfortunate because work and school schedules overwhelmingly favor early risers. He writes that owls are often forced to “burn the proverbial candle at both ends. As a result, more serious health problems due to lack of sleep can befall owls, including higher levels of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, Heart attack and stroke rates.”
“Insomnia is so important that I am tempted to define man as an animal that cannot sleep,” writes EM Cioran, patron saint of night owls why do we sleep. Walker’s worldview may not be as bleak as the Romanian essayist’s, but he does paint a picture of an unbearably austere society in which more and more of us sleep less and less. What he calls our “cultural sleep norms” is under attack on multiple fronts:
Midnight is no longer “midnight”. For many of us, midnight is often the time we think about checking our email for the last time—and we know what’s often going on long after that. Compounding the problem is that we no longer sleep until morning hours to accommodate these later bedtimes. We can’t. Our circadian physiology, and the insatiable early morning demands of a post-industrial lifestyle, deprive us of much-needed sleep.
Basically, if you regularly clock in for less than 7 hours a night, you’re doing yourself as much damage as smoking regularly or drinking too much alcohol. As someone who tends to take six hours as a solid win, and feels – or at least felt before reading this book – that he could get through five hours, I’m not sure how often sleep-deprived people don’t. Apocalypse was particularly disturbed not to admit that he was like that.
This low level of exhaustion becomes their accepted norm or baseline. Individuals fail to recognize how their chronically sleep-deprived state impairs their intellectual and physical vitality, including the slow accumulation of ill health. They rarely think of the connection between the former and the latter.
The book also conveys a thought-provoking and important message that sleep is essential for the proper development of young people. Going to school early — especially in the U.S., where nearly half of public high schools start before 7:20 a.m. — can be disastrous for teens’ mental health. Walker believes there is ample evidence that sleep deprivation is a factor in the onset of depression and schizophrenia.
Despite his dire warnings, Walker’s tone is mostly crisp and flattering in standard popular sci-fi style, and he excels at explaining complex neurological phenomena to the average reader. He occasionally gets caught up in ill-advised wordplay (here he’s on marine mammals and REM sleep, eg: “Seals take samples, but only a fraction of them”). There’s also a very odd passage that tries to explain the memory benefits of sleep through “The Sound of Silence,” but that really just shows how badly a passage can fall victim to my hypothetical Simon and Garfunkel lyric reprint restrictions “Maybe you know the song and the lyrics,” Walker pleaded. “Simon and Garfunkel describe meeting their old friend, the dark (sleep). They talk about relaying daytime events to the sleeping brain in a visual form at night, crawling gently – if you It’s a gentle upload of information, if you like.”
But I think it’s disrespectful to prose someone who tries to save you from a tired and miserable existence and ends up dying prematurely – kind of like someone complaining about the lack of leg room in a life raft. Because that’s what this book is.It might be a little too early to tell you now why do we sleep Saved my life, but I can tell you it was an eye opener.