Ask me how I feel about Matthew Walker’s superlative pop science book Why We Sleep, and I’ll point you towards the climax of 1956 science fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, viz:
Like Kevin McCarthy trying to warn the world of an alien takeover (which takes place – ironically enough – whilst humans are asleep…), I have an uncontrollable urge to press a copy of Why We Sleep into the hands of anyone who will listen. Certainly, it’s made me think about my own relationship with sleep again, and also helped me better understand why my moods are often so negative after a bad night.
Walker’s book is expertly structured, with sections on how sleep changes during our lifetimes; the benefits of sleep, and the risks associated with a lack of it; why we dream, and how it benefits us, both mentally and creatively; and finally reasons why many of us struggle to sleep well, and what we can do about it. Walker clearly has a broad audience in mind: he encourages the reader to dip into the book in any order, and is also not worried about sending his readers off to sleep. As sleep has been shown to be a powerful aid to memory ‘I am actively going to encourage that kind of behaviour from you… Please feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness.’ Erm, okay – thanks! Nodding off is a danger given the amount of unfamiliar terminology Walker uses, but thankfully he also has the teacher’s gift for an effective and crystal clear analogy. These help make some challenging and complex neuroscience much more meaningful.
The most striking sections of the book are where Walker talks about the risks of insufficient sleep, both in the short and long-term. This is more than just struggling to be productive at work after a bad night; Walker shows that a repeated sleep deficit leads to an increased risk of a range of health problems (cancer and heart disease amongst them) and a weakened immune system. One of the major benefits of sleep is that it allows the body to heal and repair itself – take sleep away, or disrupt it (as happens in many forms of dementia, and in many forms of mental illness: ‘There is no major psychiatric condition in which sleep is normal.’) and health can rapidly deteriorate. Walker and his team at the University of California are researching how a range of sleep therapies might see patients cured of – or better able to live with – their illnesses.
Insufficient sleep also prevents the brain from reining in its more irrational, emotional side – something that I’ve noticed only too well in myself. Walker cites a study where subjects were shown photographs of different facial expressions; those who were sleep-deprived consistently described these faces as more menacing or unfriendly than participants who were well-rested. I know how this feels; negative self-talk and a lack of self-esteem are much more common and much more problematic for me when I am tired, something that I’ve become particularly aware of since I started teaching. It’s a deeply unpleasant way to feel; and now that I know why I’ll be doing my utmost to prevent it by ensuring that I’m well-rested.
Reading the book, I also hope to be more tolerant of my students in the classroom. Adolescence is a very emotional time, and one that is only amplified by some changes that take place in the brain regarding sleep. A shift in an individual’s internal body clock means that, during adolescence, they want to both stay awake later and sleep in later. This clearly doesn’t fit well with the need to attend school; and one of the catastrophic effects of school start times (which in the USA can be as early as 7am) is to prevent teenagers from receiving the kinds of sleep they really need, and at a time they really need them. Given the surge in poor mental health amongst teenagers, ensuring they receive sufficient sleep (which may include after school afternoon naps) may be one simple way of combatting this. I’m not the only teacher to have had a pupil doze off in class, and I’m sure it will happen again. When it does, I’ll deal with the offender sympathetically. I’ll also be reinforcing the need for quality sleep with all my classes (especially the ones taking GCSEs), perhaps using some of Walker’s science to back me up.
Reading Why We Sleep has left me determined to take my bedtimes more seriously. School starts again next week, and as I start a new job it will likely be even more demanding than usual. I’ll be giving myself more sleep opportunities (a lack of which Walker sees as a public health emergency), which means earlier bedtimes. Whilst I’m not convinced they will allow me to ditch the alarm clock (yet…), I’d love for that eventually to be the case. For now, if more and better quality sleep can help me to be as consistently productive and positive thinking as I would like to be, I’ll be happy. Night night.