“Why We Sleep” … And Why Can’t I Wake Up?

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

I’d heard about this book but didn’t feel compelled to get hold of it until David Lodge, one of my favorite authors, named it his book of 2017 in the TLS year-end roundup. I got an e-copy from NetGalley but then found the physical book on the bestsellers display in my local library and found that a more conducive format for skimming. It’s a fairly long and dense book, with smallish type and scientific figures, so I knew I was unlikely to read the whole thing, but enjoyed mining it for fascinating information about evolution, neuroscience and child development.

We often hear that sleep, diet and exercise are the three pillars of health, but Walker, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, goes further: he believes sleep is the platform on which diet and exercise rest. Getting 7–9 hours of sleep a night is not some luxury to aim for but an absolute essential for the brain to process new information and prepare for receiving more the next day. Dreaming is like overnight therapy, and fuels creativity. Sleep deprivation has been associated with dementia and cancer: it’s no accident that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who prided themselves on getting by on just five hours of sleep a night, both developed Alzheimer’s. Just a few nights of insufficient sleep can weaken the immune system and increase the risks of developing a serious illness. It’s no wonder Walker calls sleep loss an epidemic.

Here are some other facts I gleaned:

  • During primate evolution, the transition to sleeping on the ground instead of in trees meant we could sleep more deeply – not having to worry about falling out – and the resulting increase in REM sleep and dreams contributed to the development of complex culture and creativity.
  • Fetuses are asleep most of the time; they kick in their sleep. Alcohol use during pregnancy or breastfeeding can lead to a decline in the offspring’s sleep quality or quantity.
  • People with autism get 30–50% less REM sleep than neurotypical people.
  • The postprandial slump in energy many of us experience is evolutionarily inbuilt, and suggests that a short nap (30–40 minutes) would be natural and beneficial. For instance, some African tribespeople still regularly nap at the hottest point of the day.

 Walker’s sleep tips are mostly common-sense stuff you will have heard before. His #1 piece of advice is to have a sleep schedule, always going to sleep and waking up at the same time. (“Catching up” on weekends doesn’t work, though napping before 3 p.m. can.) Set an alarm for bedtime so you’ll stick to it, he suggests.

My rating:

 

Making It Personal

I like my sleep, and I like my lie-ins. It’s one of many reasons why I don’t have kids. But I hoped that the older I got the better I’d be about waking up in the mornings. That hasn’t seemed to be the case. The past couple of weeks have been abnormal in that my husband has been working from home, too – he’s been on strike from the university and/or keeping clear of the snow – but on an average weekday, when the alarm goes off at a time starting with a 6, I feel like I could sleep for hours more. I usually cover my head with a pillow and stay in bed with the cat curled against my legs for an extra half-hour while my husband showers and starts getting things ready; only when I hear the tea being poured do I finally extricate myself from the covers and lurch downstairs to eat breakfast and make our sandwiches for the day.

One of my bibliotherapy prescriptions was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a 12-week set of readings and exercises – chiefly 20 minutes of automatic writing each morning and creative “dates” you take yourself on. For the former, you set your alarm half an hour early each day and fill three longhand pages with whatever comes to mind. It’s not a journal; it’s more a way of processing what’s going on in your life, gradually moving from mundane thoughts about daily pressures to more creative stuff. But if I can’t wake up for our regular alarm, how in the world would I get up even earlier to commit to this creative exercise? I’ve wondered if I could cheat a bit and do the pages after a short nap in the early afternoons, but I think the idea really is to put down whatever comes into your head first thing every morning.

I can see that this would be a good discipline, especially as I come up to my fifth anniversary of freelancing and take stock of my career. I just don’t know if I can make myself do it.

 

Have you read anything about sleep, creativity or mindfulness recently?

 

Also on my TBR to be skimmed:

  • 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary
  • The Business of Sleep: How Sleeping Better Can Transform Your Career by Vicki Culpin, a TEDx speaker and professor of organizational behavior [forthcoming on May 8th from Bloomsbury Business]
  • The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest by Penelope A. Lewis
  • Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall
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34 thoughts on ““Why We Sleep” … And Why Can’t I Wake Up?

  1. Sleep or the lack of it used to be an issue for me. I found Colin Espie’s How to Overcome Insomnia and Sleep Problems incredibly useful and effective should anyone reading this suffer the same problems. Although I’m drawn to Walker’s book I’ve also avoided it, not wanting to know how much damage may have been done over my many sleepless year!

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    1. I suppose some of what Walker says could be considered alarmist. I did wonder how much Lodge could get out of a book like this in his 80s — by that point your sleeping habits are probably pretty engrained. However, the book does have a lot of practical advice to offer, such as getting half an hour of exercise and half an hour of sunshine every day (in combination would seem to make sense!) and what to avoid in the few hours before sleep (caffeine, screen time). He’s anti-sleeping pills, but sanctions taking melatonin if you have trouble sleeping.

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      1. All sensible advice, I’d say. Emsie is adamnant that you must get out of bed and go elswewhere rather than lying there angsting which I found very hard at first but it did work, plus keeping a sleep diary. Most of us who have trouble with sleep underestimate how much we manage and therefore become more anxious.

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  2. I’m interested in this one and love the facts you shared! I take a 20 minute nap every day and my husband makes fun of me (says stuff like “must be nice”, “she operates on a child’s schedule”, etc) and I always say a short nap is recommended! And I do always feel off if I don’t get the sleep I need.

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    1. Since I work from home I could nap if I let myself, but I feel I’m not good at short naps. A nap to me means an hour and a half or more, which I only indulge in maybe once a month. I don’t think I would even be properly asleep within 20 minutes.

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  3. I totally get this – I hate waking up, always have. The only time it’s ever felt natural was when I lived alone in my student house for six weeks, during which time my laptop was broken; I read eight hours a day, and, without the ability to stream TV or music, went to bed at or before 10:30 every night. Within a week I was waking naturally at 7:30. (It was probably the only good thing about that whole situation, which slowly drove me round the twist.)

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    1. If I *have* to get up, like to make an early plane or — when I used to commute to London — get to work on time, I can do it, but freelancing has made me a little bit lazy about things. I thought I would naturally get better about waking up as a part of being a proper grown-up. (I remember looking down my nose at my college philosophy professor for saying she would never agree to teach a class that met before 9:30. “Fake grown-up,” I naively accused in my mind!) Maybe I hoped Walker would reveal to me the secret of how to spring out of bed every morning, but he seems resigned to the fact that some, or even most, people will always rely on an alarm clock.

      That must have been a very strange time for you…but you must have gotten through so many books! At least one a day, right?

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  4. Sleep deprivation is no joke. When my twins were infants, babies–even toddlers–my husband and I got little sleep, and we were a mess. But I didn’t take it seriously. With the benefit of hindsight, I would ask for help if I had to do it again, simply so I could sleep. Of course, I’d probably waste that time blogging! Great post, as always!

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  5. Interesting facts you shared. I love sleep! My husband says it’s my superpower, the ability to fall asleep quickly and take naps. (I only get naps on Fridays, which is my day off, and my son is at school.) I almost never feel like I get enough sleep, though. My husband works most evenings and I try to stay awake till he gets home (anywhere from 11 to 12) so we can talk and connect. If he ever gets another job and works in the daytime I wonder what it will do to me to be able to get 8 hours every night!

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    1. I’ve always thought 8 hours was the ideal, but Walker is a bit more flexible than that. He usually says “7 to 9,” which makes me more hopeful that I usually get the minimum. It’s tough when you and your partner’s schedules are clashing, or varied. When I worked in libraries I had to do one early morning and one late night a week, so it wasn’t practical to keep to the same sleep schedule all the time.

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  6. I’m a big believer in the power of sleep; when I keep it where it’s supposed to be, everything just works better. But I can relate to the awkwardness of changing morning routines. Is it the actual tea that gets you up, or the food with it and the company? Maybe there’s a way for your husband to make you a cup and bring it to you at your desk instead, just to motivate you to get writing, and, then, you can have the rest of your breakfast later, in company or otherwise? I bet you’d write those three pages waaaay faster if there was a plate of food at the end of it (oh, wait, maybe that’s just me).

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    1. I think it’s just that hearing the tea poured is my absolute deadline: I know I have to get up now for breakfast and making lunches. It’s possible that a cup of tea would be enough to get me out of bed and ready to write, but what I can’t really contemplate is the alarm going off at 6 or earlier for me to do it. And I wouldn’t want to force my husband (or the cat) to get up earlier just because I was doing so. Sigh.

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      1. I understand. That’s awkward. Maybe there is some new habit that your husband is secretly dying to add into his morning routine which would move things up for both of you? Or, maybe Kitty has been thinking of taking up yoga? Then they would be up and at it too? 😀

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  7. I’ve given up reading books about sleep, as I’ve taken every bit of advice ever, and I’m just not very good at it. Knowing I may get Alzheimer’s as a result is just great! And sleeping in? If only. However bad the night, I wake up at 6.00 at the latest. So I get lots of reading done …. but no longer about sleep.

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    1. I can see why the thought of this book would be distressing to you. Like causes of cancer, these things are never clear-cut. I wonder if the information is better encountered earlier in life. Walker thinks that alongside lessons like dietary education and sex education, schoolkids should get sleep lessons! That could help curb the sleep loss epidemic.

      My mother has woken up between 4 and 5:30 just about every morning for as long as I can remember — which is one main reason why I wondered if I’d naturally wake up earlier as I aged. However, she’s usually in bed by 9, which I can never manage, and naps every afternoon.

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  8. I had to smile at your thoughts about it being grown up to wake up early – I’ve been waiting 46 years to be grown up enough to stay up late! I automatically wake up between 5.30 and 6 am and it’s very rare I can get back to sleep after I’ve woken – I’m wide awake BAM. It can be really annoying esp when I’ve gone to bed a bit late. I will fall asleep anywhere though. I don’t really nap as I feel guilty about it, except on Sunday afternoons when I’m training for a marathon and I’ve done a long run in the morning.

    I requested Why We Sleep on NetGalley but haven’t heard back on it so I’m guessing I won’t be getting it.

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    1. Huh, maybe I need to go back and mine the book for theories on why some people wake up early and others can’t. I think I remember he has a short section on owl vs. lark tendencies. If I were to revert to natural patterns, with no alarm or cat to wake me, I’d probably sleep from 11 or 12 at night until 8 in the morning.

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  9. Interesting, the connection between too little sleep and illness. It has always been easy for me to fall asleep, and I always sleep seven hours and wake up clear and alert at 6 o’clock. But, when our children were small, I slept too little, often only three hours a night, and that affected my health. It took a while to get back on track again. Thanks for the review, I will order this book immediately.

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      1. The mistake I made was to believe I would have time to do everything I had done before we got children, including my own company and many hobbies 😉 One of the kids slept all night, no problems at all, our second daughter was not as simple, but had good sleep routines at two years of age, so sleep absence did not last forever.

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  10. Sounds an interesting book. I was never hung up about sleep until last year. Before that if I couldn’t sleep occasionally, I was fine with it. Last year’s prolonged illness with its attendant sleep problems has left me jittery about sleep in general even though i do sleep much better again now. I’m working on trying not to get worried when I can’t sleep – or when I wake up wide awake 10 minutes after nodding off… 😐 As for you, Rebecca, are you an owl and up very late or do you just need a lot of sleep? Since you are based at home for work, can you not just tackle the morning pages when you get up regardless? (I worked through TAW some years ago and used the morning pages technique for a long time.)

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    1. I’m impressed to find someone who’s successfully done the morning pages! Did you find it a useful exercise? My getting-up times are completely determined by my husband’s work patterns. On “school nights” we aim for roughly 10:30 to 6:30 or 11 to 7 for sleeping, though sometimes we get to bed later than planned and so get fewer than 8 hours. My problem would be waking up BEFORE the regular alarm to get the exercises done. I was a night owl in college and if left to my own devices now would probably stay up until midnight. However, when I do manage to get up I find the early mornings a productive time for writing.

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  11. I did find the morning pages exercise useful at the time although possibly less as a means of unlocking creativity. It was a mind dump and it did get stuff out of my head, which I suppose left more room for other productive things (such as being creative perhaps). I’ve been thinking about it now though and suspect if I resumed, the experience would be totally different. Interesting…

    It sounds like given the choice you would find sleep easier with a different set of timings. It’s difficult isn’t it, adapting to the inevitable constraints of life and others. I hope you find the morning pages exercise useful, or at least interesting. Maybe you’ll find yourself writing out your responses to being woken by that kettle earlier than you would like! 🙂

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  12. I love that evolutionary fact about sleep! It would be fascinating to know what early humans were like every step along the way.
    I’ve enjoyed reading all the comments and getting to know a little about everyone else’s sleep experience! I’m a night owl, but also have to get up early to get the kids off to school, so I really enjoy my one morning a week that I get to stay in bed a little longer. I don’t usually sleep more, though – I read. 🙂
    I had quite a few years of not enough sleep because of the kids, but now that they’re older it’s more my husband’s schedule that keeps me from getting enough sleep. I often think it would be nice to have my own sleeping space so that I don’t have to worry about what my husband might be doing, but I realize that’s an unpopular way to go. Everyone would feel sorry for us like we’re on our way to divorce. Ha!

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    1. I went back and reminded myself that “night owl” or “lark”/morning person is called your “chronotype,” and it’s most likely genetic. Yet the world is very much geared towards larks. My husband used to get up at 4 or 5 sometimes on the weekends to go bird ringing (called banding in North America) — I always stayed in bed for hours more! But on weekdays I do get up with him, as otherwise I’d only see him for a few hours in the evening. It’s nice to start the day by having breakfast together at the table.

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