As a teenager, I recall ruminating on how absurd sleep is. After sixteen hours of consciousness—eating, socializing, relaxing, etc., we lay prone in a soft place and semi-voluntarily lose consciousness for an eight hour period of which we have no memory, not to mention no seemingly obvious need of. Like an automaton we turn off, exit the world, and get turned back on in the morning—surprised to find the world is the same as we left it. That lack of direct accounting accounts for one-third of our lives—one-third. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams (2017) is an absolutely fascinating look at that absurdity, and the need for it.
Grounded in decades of global, clinical research (not only Walker’s), Why We Sleep answers the titular question by breaking sleep down into its relative components. From addressing the question directly: why does the animal organism require sleep, to the consequences of sleeping well, and conversely the consequences of not sleeping well. It pulls the cover off (slight pun intended) one of the most basic and fundamental yet most taken-for-granted aspects of life. What are our brains doing while we sleep? What are our bodies doing while we sleep? What are dreams? What old wives’ tales are true, and which not? How does modern Western culture affect the quality of our sleep? This and more.
And there is something for everybody, literally. For the casual person only loosely interested in the subject, Walker keeps things interesting and engaging in practical fashion. Real world examples from everyday life form the lion’s share of testimony and evidence. For the more scientifically minded person, the practical examples and setups are backed with a light bit of research and statistics, with an appendix available for readers who want even more.
A couple technical notes. First, Walker’s diction is wonderful. Rendering what could have been medically complex into terms and descriptions the non-research acclimated person can grasp, as well as providing relevant metaphors and anecdotes, the text is a pleasure at the pure reading level. Secondly, and as must be addressed with any scientific text, Walker backs all of the content with relevant studies and research, both his own and from the global cadre of scientists examining the multiple aspects of sleep.* By the end of the book, I realized just how many research sites around the world must be the equivalent of hotel rooms as doctors and students do work.
For me personally, I was given the understanding of the positive impact my relatively healthy sleep history has had. But more significantly, how important it is to pass this on to my children—to prioritize sleep at times we parents might be more inclined to push homework or force them to get up early for school.
Perhaps its an over-reaction, perhaps I’m experiencing a post-book high, or perhaps I’m right, any way you look at it Why We Sleep seems required reading for the human race. As a manager of a team of 100+ people, I’m now strongly considering going to our Board of directors and asking for a room for people to rest, or at least the public statement that taking a nap after lunch is culturally acceptable within the company.
*If the internets are to be believed, and in this case it seems so, Walker was not 100% honest. He states that the Western world’s sleep behavior has been classified as a disorder by the World Health Organization, which turns out to not be true. Secondly, apparently certain points of data were elided from a couple of the charts and graphs. I personally hate it when encountering this type of info as it calls into question the integrity of the entire work. That being said, I think the book’s point still hits directly home: healthy sleep feeds a healthy life.