“Why We Sleep” – Matthew Walker

If I was given the restriction to only read 1 single book this year, then I would without a doubt choose Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep”!!! I don’t remember the last time I read a book that was so densely packed with valuable information & on top of that “packaged” in such an approachable way by the author. It didn’t feel like all the information was being imposed on you but rather as if your curiosity was being sparked (or not only sparked but much more like a huge fire of curiosity being started!).

This book is so relevant that I wish it would be a part of the regular school curriculum during biology lessons, explaining the importance & the meaning of sleep, as well as the different functions of the brain linked to it. Especially during that time when you’re a teenager or an adolescent, at school or at university, so much of the information described in “Why We Sleep” would have been of incredibly high value. It would have possibly put an end to trying to cram in as much knowledge as possible before exams, skipping on hours & hours of sleep, pulling “all-nighters”, regardless the fact of knowing that they aren’t as efficient as other methods of studying. What I would have needed back then would have been a motivational explanation of why I would have needed to stop that harmful behaviour. I finally received it now, unfortunately about 10 years too late… But as they say, better late than never, right?

Just knowing that you should sleep enough or more than you currently are, was never a sufficient motivator for me to go to bed those highly needed couple of hours earlier. For me, getting access to numerous statistics from studies & experiments was the actual solution to make me change my mind. This is exactly what “Why We Sleep” offers. Matthew Walker manages to convincingly explain exactly how much sleep you need & most importantly WHY! I have personally noticed that I often get sick after a way too short night of sleep aaand bingo! That’s exactly what I got confirmed! I first heard about these studies when listening to Matt Walker’s TED Talk & I would really suggest it as a great sum up of some really interesting facts within the book.

“[…] Studies revealing just how quickly and comprehensively a brief dose of short sleep can affect your […] immune cells. […] A single night of 4 hours of sleep – such as going to bed at 3 am & waking up at 7 am – swept away 70% of the natural killer cells circulating in the immune system […]” (p. 184)

Seldom have I come across a book that would leave such a profound effect on me. It would make me change my behaviour:

  • if I were pregnant (offering exact explanations of the effects of alcohol, cigarettes & caffeine on the body of the mother, as well as the growing offspring);
  • if I were a parent & if I was imposing sleep times on my children during their teenager-hood (as well as making me understand why my sleeping rhythm back in the days was unjustly regulated by my own parents);
  • but most importantly it made me rethink my current day behaviour & my relationship with sleep. It gave answers to so many little facts you might have unconsciously noticed in your life, such as the beneficial effect of a good night’s sleep after an emotionally devastating situation:

“It was not, therefore, time per se that healed all wounds, but instead it was time spent in dream sleep that was providing emotional convalescence. To sleep, perchance to heal.” (p. 210)

There is a countless amount of information that I found highly appealing & the previous record by the book “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” has been beaten in the amount of passages I have highlighted as memorable. This time there literally are way too many of them, so I won’t even try & quote any 😀 To just name one personally meaningful example: I have always wanted to remember my dreams, feeling like it would justify the enormous amount of time spent asleep, which often felt pointless. After finishing the book I feel calmer about not knowing what I dreamt about because I now understand the reason behind why we dream. There were other emotional triggers that confirmed the feeling of pointlessly wasted time in school because of the inefficiency of knowledge testing, being imposed to squeeze in the studying of all the lessons of an entire semester for a single exam. Not to speak of the torturously early wake-up routines, robbing you of valuable sleep, its harmfulness being explained in details within the book.

Speaking about waking up, one important take-away for me was to stop snoozing once and for all. We have all heard that it’s not a behaviour that’s useful, that you don’t add any sleep by getting up those 20-30 minutes later, but we still do it, since it feels too hard to get up from the first ring on. Within “Why We Sleep” a more explicit explanation is offered on why we need to change this habit:

“Participants artificially wrenched from sleep will suffer a spike in blood pressure and a shock acceleration in heart rate caused by an explosive burst of activity from the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system. […] If alarming your heart, quite literally, were not bad enough, using the snooze feature means that you will repeatedly inflict that cardiovascular assault again and again within a short span of time.” (p. 280)

The author expertly manages the limbo between mixing fascinating story-telling with valuable & complex information. The way explanatory visualisations & approachable comparisons are brought up is extremely helpful in making you digest even the most complex topics. The used language flows well & the tone is much more the one of a friend sharing tons of interesting knowledge & fun facts with you, rather than a scientist imposing his expertise on you in incomprehensible terms.

“Sixty years of scientific research prevent me from accepting anyone who tells me that he or she can ‘get by on just 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night just fine.’ ” (p. 137)

“We have, however, discovered a very rare collection of individuals who appear to be able to be able to survive on six hours of sleep, and show minimal impairment […]. ‘The number, expressed as a percent of the population, and rounded to a whole number, is zero.’ […] It is far, far more likely that you will be struck by lightning (the lifetime odds being 1 in 12 000) than being capable of surviving on insufficient sleep thanks to a rare gene.” (p. 145)

Throughout the entire book, there was only one tiny part that I didn’t find as enjoyable & captivating (information on various sleep disorders), but even that isn’t sufficient to make me reduce a star from the total rating. “Why We Sleep” has been eye-opening, offering facts & figures I have never come across before & it offers relevant suggestions on changes we would need to make in our society. These are urgently needed in order to slow down the drastic development of the majority of the population nowadays not getting a sufficient amount of sleep, especially professionals in crucial positions, such as doctors, managers & similar.

“If you’re about to receive medical treatment at a hospital, you’d be well advised to ask the doctor: ‘How much sleep have you had in the past 24h?’ The doctor’s response will determine, to a statistically provable degree, whether the treatment you receive will result in a serious medical error, or even death.” (p. 316)

“The lower the quality of sleep that the supervisor reported getting from one night to the next accurately predicted poor self-control and a more abusive nature toward employees the following day […]. In the days after a supervisor had slept poorly, the employees themselves, even if well rested, became less engaged in their jobs throughout that day as a consequence. It was a chain-reaction effect, one in which the lack of sleep in that one superordinate person in a business structure was transmitted on like a virus, infecting even well-rested employees with work disengagement and reduced productivity.” (p. 302)

This book gets a full 5 out of 5 star rating from me & it has climbed up the ladder of the favourite non-fiction book of 2020 so far!!

“Why We Sleep” – Matthew Walker

★★★★★ (5/5)

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