Emily's Reviews > Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
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it was amazing
bookshelves: 2017, nonfiction, medicine, review-copy

For once, I actually mean five stars in the sense of "everybody should read this book." This book is highly readable but contains stunning information I'd never seen anywhere else (and includes numerous references to serious primary literature).

I was reminded (stay with me here) of ancient Egyptian funerary practices. After carefully embalming organs like the heart and liver, and placing them in canopic jars, the Egyptians pulled the brain out with a hook and threw it away, because they didn't really know what it was for. This is how most modern people approach sleep. We know it must be sort of important, because why else would it be there, but we're quite foggy on the specifics and tend to give it short shrift. At worst, we see it as an "annoying and enfeebling" obstacle to other uses of our time.

Some standout topics here: your natural day/night pattern and the buildup of a chemical called adenosine in your brain that makes you sleepy, which contribute independently to your sleep cycle; and how caffeine and jetlag get you off your rhythm. (This was particularly interesting to me because I read this on a long flight. I never sleep on flights to Europe and this book explains why: I'm not sleep deprived enough to have excess adenosine to make me sleepy, plus it doesn't feel like nighttime yet when we depart. So my brain isn't interested in sleeping. When I arrive, my goal is to stay awake until 9pm and at first, it's easy. That's the "day" part of the circadian rhythm giving me a bit of a boost. But soon, that fades away and the extra adenosine comes crashing down.) The role of sleep in processing memories and new information: sorting out what's important, solidifying newly gained understanding, and turning traumatic experiences into bearable memories. How all creatures sleep, but in different ways that make the brain-repairing effects of sleep compatible with their environments. Some things that we think aid sleep, like alcohol and sleeping pills, are only useful if your goal is to lie inert in bed; they don't lead to true, restorative sleep.

Oh, and the doctor who developed the system for medical residents, and insisted that long shifts and little sleep were essential training, was a big-time cocaine addict.

There's some genuinely frightening information here as well. Sleep deficits cannot be made up (sleeping in on the weekends doesn't help) and lead to shorter lifespans. Lack of sleep contributes to Alzheimer's disease, mental illness, and cancer. (The WHO categorizes night shift work as a probable carcinogen.) Drowsy driving is more common than drunk driving and more dangerous. We may be seriously harming the country's teens by forcing them to wake up and go to high school at an hour so inimical to the circadian rhythm of that age group.

I already follow the author's advice about "sleep hygiene" so I was mostly attuned to the scientific information and arguments here about social ills. Many people in my sleep-deprived cohort may be genuinely alarmed to read this book. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't! I read so many nonfiction books with titles like this one that are ho-hum--but this one's a humdinger.

Review copy received from Edelweiss.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 19, 2017 – Finished Reading
September 27, 2017 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-20 of 20 (20 new)

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message 1: by Jon (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jon Wow...sounds like the go-to book on this subject. Was the subtitle a little misleading?--sounds like it might be a primer for dream analysis.

Emily I think they meant the subtitle to imply "sleep and dreams are powerful"--you're right that "unlocking" has a sense of "demystifying" that's a bit off. There no talk about dream interpretation here, except to explain how Freud was off-base.

Elizabeth Theiss Smith Thanks for a great review. I just finished this book and agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. A couple of surprises for me were the ideal sleep temperature of 65 and the fact that LED light suppresses melatonin production. Guess who just replaced all her bulbs with LEDs?

Emily Oh yeah, I've done all LEDs as well. But my understanding is that the color matters. LED screens like computers and phones skew very blue, and that's the problem. I use Night Shift and f.lux to moderate my device screens, and my LED lightbulbs are warm in color, so I think I'm good. Also, I'm not planning to turn my thermostat below 65 (brr).

Ericramirez18 Excellent review Emily, thanks!

message 6: by Jaffrey (new)

Jaffrey Yusuf Hi Emily, does he say if 7 hours constitute as optimum sleep? Or do we need to hit 8 hrs?

Emily You'd do better to read it than rely on my memory, but I think he'd say 7 hours is inadequate. There is a small proportion of people who may be fully rested in that amount of time, but it's many fewer than you'd think and you shouldn't bet on being one of them.

message 8: by Bonnie (new) - added it

Bonnie DeMoss Thanks for the informative review. I’m mostly interested in this book because I’ve always wished I didn’t have to sleep because it seems like a waste of time. I could get so much more done if I didn’t have to sleep. I’d like to see the benefits of sleep. I’ve never been much concerned about losing sleep. To me it seemed like gaining time. I will check the book out.

message 9: by Bonnie (new) - added it

Bonnie DeMoss Thanks for the informative review. I’m mostly interested in reading the book because I’ve always wished I didn’t have to sleep. Sleep seems like such a waste of time. I’ve always felt like I could get so much more done if I didn’t have to sleep. I will check the book out. I’m interested to see the benefits of sleep. I’ve never been much concerned about losing sleep for as long as I could stay awake.

David Great summary. I have not read a book this important in many years.

message 11: by Shannon (new) - added it

Shannon I haven't heard this book since I was just around 4 and I am now 8years old so I haven't seen it is 4 years

Mirela Great book! I liked especially references from animal world.

message 13: by Lisa (new) - rated it 1 star

Lisa Hi Emily, where did you find the “references to serious primary literature”? I looked at the end and I looked for footnotes and didn’t see anything! If I had, I would have kept reading because it’s an important topic. Thanks in advance for responding.

Joyce Great review so I looked you up and love explanation of your ratings.

Emily Thanks, Joyce!

Lisa, sorry I forgot to respond before because I got a notification of your comment on my phone when I was out about about. I'm referring to the fact that the endnotes to every chapter include references to actual scientific papers that you can look up on PubMed, etc. I'm not sure following up on the primary literature is most people's idea of fun, but I thought it was a nice sign of transparency that he included them.

message 16: by Eid (new) - added it

Eid Hussain Thanks for the superb reviews

message 17: by L (new) - rated it 5 stars

L Great review!

Mark  Porton Yes agree with your comments, great review. Feel so lucky to have stumbled across this book

mia 美愛 d yeah I loved this book. a true 10/10. great review

message 20: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Wig https://guzey.com/books/why-we-sleep/ be careful about that primary literature, it seems like the author misinterpreted some data...

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