Book Review: Understanding “Why We Sleep” to Sleep Better

By Kritika Narula

As we understand the science behind our wellbeing — and especially, sleep — the phrase, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” seems ever more convincingly unpropitious. In a culture where pulling all-nighters sounds like “a badge of honour” or “a sacrifice made for urgent work,” the idea that rest and sleep actually serve a rich litany of functions can seem revolting. It is anything but.

An increasing number of people — researchers, counselors, journalists — are looking at our broken relationship with sleep. A plethora of recent books has been written, such as Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness by Alan Derickson, At Day’s Close by A. Roger Ekirch, The Secret Life of Sleep by Kat Duff, The Slumbering Masses by Matthew Wolf-Meyer, and The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington. The narrative on sleep that this literature explores is undergirded by a simple idea — that we have undermined the importance of sleep for far too long, and that the dismissal of sleep has been to the detriment of humanity.

This cultural obsession with overwork and our delusion that a sleep-be-damned approach is a prerequisite to success have resulted in conventionally successful people who are, self-admittedly, sleep-walking through life. When success is defined by such robotic standards, our sleeping time is the first victim of our scheduling hubris. In order to remedy the situation, we first need to understand how and why our sleeping time is as important as waking hours. And science can make the most compelling arguments here.

In his book Why We Sleep, professor of neuroscience and psychology and the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science, Matthew Walker, digs deeper into “the new science of sleep and dreams.” He explains, supported by research-based evidence, that neglecting sleep can impact our creativity, problem-solving, memory, physical health, relationship with food, mental wellbeing, immunity, life span, and so on.

Where sleep deprivation is glamorised and celebrated, Walker presents the workings of our body — specifically, our sleep cycles — to shock us into realising the havoc we have been wreaking on our bodies through disturbed sleep patterns. For example, Walker draws attention to our go-to deadline hack, the all-nighter. While we may pride ourselves on our ability to deliver a gigantic workload within a few hours by staying awake all night, we lose out on physical vigor and sharp brain function the following day.

In her 2016 book The Sleep Revolution, Huffington touched upon the idea that “properly appraised, our sleeping time is as valuable a commodity as the time we are awake — in fact, getting the right amount of sleep enhances the quality of every minute we spend with our eyes open.” Now Walker takes this further and provides a scientific basis for these arguments, sharing how each stage of sleep — light NREM sleep, deep NREM sleep, and REM sleep — offer different brain benefits at different times of the night.

Understanding why sleep is so critical to our wellbeing and survival should act as a wake-up call for us to repair our sleep cycles. In Why We Sleep, there are many nuggets of information that can help us in this journey.

Did you know that our circadian rhythm and the sleep pressure signal of adenosine work together to ensure that we sleep in a timely fashion? And that the caffeine that our Instagrammable lives have made so aesthetically pleasing actually tampers with these? Or that the drugs prescribed for inducing or controlling sleep have horror stories of their own?

Add to that our ubiquitous technology. Our bedrooms, the sacred shrines where we sleep, are littered with beeping, vibrating, flashing screens. All of this is bound to impair our sleep and Why We Sleep brings scientific nuance to this conversation.

In conclusion: Sleep has a lot of enemies — cultural, capitalistic, and structural. Yet, there’s no shortcut to robust sleep hygiene other than through a good night’s sleep. You have to commit to sleeping when your body gets ready to sleep, not assisted by drugs, but perhaps environments that aid sleep — soft music, electronics-free bed, a nap to punctuate the day, and setting a sleep routine.

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