Bruno Reynell reviews the new bestselling book Why We Sleep, and presents the impressive, yet disconcerting, conclusions it conveys
Ask the average UCL student how many hours of sleep they get every night, and the figure is often depressingly low. In the three-way contest between academic studies, social life and a decent night’s shut-eye, it tends to be the latter that gets sacrificed for the benefit of the other two.
In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker shows that we, both as individuals and as a society, have a drastic need to rethink our priorities and give sleep the time and attention it deserves.
Walker is Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and in Why We Sleep he presents the knowledge gained from two decades of his own research alongside that from thousands of studies conducted in laboratories across the world.
While the panoply of sources that Walker references throughout the book attest to its academic integrity, this is in no way a dry scientific paper. Complex neurological mechanisms are expertly explained in layman’s terms, and a pleasantly light tone is maintained throughout.
However, in many ways, Why We Sleep does not make for a comfortable read. The book has several intriguing parts on topics such as sleep as a natural phenomenon, and the weird and wondrous domain of dreams, but the most memorable sections are undoubtedly those devoted to detailing the extraordinary benefits of sleep, and what happens when we don’t get enough of it.
Among the endless array of troublesome statistics offered up by Walker, there is sure to be something to disturb every reader. For example, as someone for whom six hours meant a good night’s sleep during my time at secondary school, reading about the critical importance of sleep for the developing adolescent brain was disconcerting.
For others, it may be the startling links between a lack of sleep and diseases such as cancer and dementia, or the potentially fatal impact of driving when drowsy (since reading Why We Sleep, my father has already adjusted summer holiday plans to avoid driving while sleep-deprived). In fact, the slightly overenthusiastic repetition of some of these points is, perhaps, the sole criticism to be had of the book, but equally, this feels somewhat unfair given the importance of the messages that Walker is trying to convey.
A final impressive aspect of the book is its closing chapter. Instead of leaving the book as a simple description of the problems created by our lack of sleep, Walker uses this chapter to suggest a range of solutions from an individual level all the way up to a societal scale. In doing so, he offers an optimistic vision of a future where everyone is aware of the importance of a good night’s sleep, and steps are taken in all aspects of life to facilitate it.
Labelling a book as ‘required reading’ has become somewhat cliché nowadays, but in the case of Why We Sleep, it’s certainly a description that feels appropriate.
Image credit: Saroyan Humphrey for The Observer