Magazine article The Spectator

'Why We Sleep', by Matthew Walker - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Why We Sleep', by Matthew Walker - Review

Article excerpt

I've read several books about sleep recently, and their authors all tell me the same three things. The first is that, in the modern world, it's hard to get enough sleep. The second is that sleep is very important. Every night, we pass out. Every morning, we regain consciousness, half aware that time has passed. For a moment, we might have the impression we've just been flying through the air, or that we're about to be executed. The whole thing is totally weird. That's the third thing.

Before I get into the weirdness, I'll say something about the importance of sleep. Authors tend to think that what they're writing about is important. But sleep authors are a breed apart. They're like sleep salesmen. And I've never come across a sleep salesman quite as dedicated as Matthew Walker. An Englishman, he is the director of the sleep and neuroimaging laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. 'I am in love with sleep,' he tells us. 'I am in love with everything sleep is and does.'

So: what is sleep? Well, it's not 'the absence of wakefulness'. It's the presence of something, a different state -- one that heals you, increases your lifespan, helps you to look slim and toned, makes you brighter and more charming, more attractive, sharper, better at maths and spelling, better at driving. I could go on for ages. Walker tells you, over and over, of the benefits of sleep. Reading late at night, I turned the pages, fascinated, hour after hour. I kept wanting to go to sleep. But not because the book is dull. It's like reading about the joy of swimming, and wanting to jump into a lake.

It's not just that sleep is good. It's that not sleeping -- or even not sleeping for the full eight hours -- can be terrible. I knew that five or six hours wasn't great. Walker tells us just how bad it can be. What's the worst sickness you can think of? Well, not sleeping enough might give you that very sickness. Sleeping too little, for instance, ruins your immune system. Walker cites an experiment in which people had a virus sprayed up their noses; people who got a good night's rest were much less likely to be laid low.

Not sleeping enough, Walker tells us, can lead to many conditions: 'Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, suicide, stroke and chronic pain. …

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