Why We Sleep – book review

Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker

I think this is the first time I’ve reviewed a self help book. They’re not really my thing. I place them in the same category as people who start sentences with: “You know what you should do?” The answer is usually to get on with something more interesting than whatever it is they think I need help with.

But I do need help with sleep.

This turned out not to be a book about cocoa and candles, hot baths and screen-less rooms, but instead a layman’s guide to how sleep works and just how essential it is. Oops. As an insomniac from long back, according to this book it is not surprising I forget people and facts. It’s amazing I can remember my own name. Walker says if we don’t sleep we don’t process memories.

Walker is a neuroscientist and runs a sleep clinic, so has good research to back up all his theories. Why We Sleep is an accessible and interesting read, which, surprisingly didn’t make me depressed at all my irretrievably lost memories and the robbed bright star I could have been but for my insomnia. It made me respect sleep for the extraordinary life support system it is. I decided to take sleep more seriously.

I can’t remember the details of all his theories, obviously, but you’ll get the gist of it from these stats here:

There is supporting evidence as well as background stories to all theses claims. Enough to make me sit up and realise I should try a bit harder to sleep better. But it is this compelling ‘hypnogram’ or sleep graph, below, that excites me, showing the predictable different stages of sleep across a night, the change in NREM and REM sleep and quick awakenings. It fits with what I know of my own sleep. Walker suggests this is not random, but a careful process of storing memories.

He uses the metaphor of modelling clay to explain this (he actually uses many metaphors in the book, some more successfully than others). First you dump the clay on a pedestal–ie. all your memories of the day. Then you remove the superfluous matter during the NREM sleep, after which “a brief intensification of early details can be made (short REM periods).” Rinse and repeat. The big sorting gets less and honing gets finer over the course of the night. I think occasionally I used to miss whole cycles in the middle, but more worrying would be the people who go to bed late and are woken in the middle of a morning cycle by an alarm clock. Being a 5am waker I’ve never needed an alarm clock, but does that mean I have missed a whole cycle of honing my memories? What happens to memories that are dumped but not sorted? It would explain why I can’t remember people I met yesterday.

So, with this encouragement in mind, I tackled my sleep problem. I found I hadn’t needed to read the entire self-help book at all. When I woke in the night I just pictured this graph in my head, told myself it was 3am and Matthew Walker says I ought to be in NREM so I sent myself back to sleep. So far so good. I’m so obedient.

But I remember, now. I have written about self-help books before. Ones specifically recommend for sleeplessness, albeit with a different take on the problem entirely: Charles Dickens as a tonic for insomnia. Try that one first. The writing’s so much better.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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