One night, not long ago, a man found himself collapsed in a hallway, clutching his leg like a wounded bear. … He lay there, hurt and confused, not knowing what had happened, since his last memory was laying his head down on a pillow in the bedroom thirty feet away.
That man was me. It had never occurred to me, before that moment, that falling asleep could lead to injury. But there I was …
Why I read it
Six years ago my plans to try out polyphasic sleep were thwarted when I got a new 9 to 5 job. I’d done a lot of planning: among other things, I’d read some scientific papers, photocopied part of a textbook to pore over, and followed Steve Pavlina’s progress on his blog. In the end, I couldn’t work out how I could reconcile it with an office/lab schedule (my work times were flexible, but where would I nap? And did I really want to waste two weeks of holiday time getting over the initial sleep-deprivation phase?) so I never ended up trying.
Since then, though, I’ve been searching for a book that would summarise all the messy bits of scientific findings I’d discovered. Something that would give a readable, entertaining, critical synopsis of current knowledge. Knowledge of things like our changing understanding of the roles of different sleep stages and so forth.
This was not that book.
About this book
This book was maybe something even better than what I was after; something less technical and more broad and readable.
It started engagingly, quickly introduced interesting stories and facts about sleep and society that I’d never heard before, and progressed chapter by chapter through different topics related to sleep, like these: How have our sleeping patterns changed throughout history? Now that science seems to be showing it’s possible to murder someone in your sleep, how can the legal system adapt? What do we know about the circadian rhythms of brains of different ages, and how can we change our routines to accommodate them? Which serious accidents could have been averted by proper sleep? Are sleeping tablets little more than a placebo, and if so, does it matter if they only make us think we’ve slept better than we have? What is the nature of insomnia, and what are the best ways to treat it? Is a comfortable mattress objectively better for sleep than a concrete floor? (Apparently, no.)
It was an easy and enjoyable read – I read it in a single sitting one evening – and I learned a lot of new things. It seems to be a really sound example of a popular science book: introduction based in personal experience, lots of interviews with scientists and visits to relevant institutions, diverse sources of anecdote and info (Coleridge, ‘dream groups’, military scientists, sleep gizmo entrepreneurs), information grouped in thematic chapters with easy flow, conversational style, excellent references, etc.
Somehow though I felt a bit unfulfilled. As I mentioned above, perhaps I was looking for a different book to this: one that was more technical. Perhaps that one is the book I’ll have to try and write myself one day.
Nonetheless, if I’m talking to anyone in the future who expresses any curiosity about sleep, I’ll probably plunge this book at their chest and tell them they’ll love it.
As luck would have it, after finishing this book I had the worst night’s sleep I’ve had in ages. It may have had something to do with the last chapter being all about insomnia, and how a sure-fire way to bring it on is to think too much about your sleep. Sigh.
This book was mostly read in the bath.
Front page image: Self Portrait, Yawning, by Joseph Ducreux