Sleep and I have had a cantankerous relationship all my life, and from what I learned from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, there is unlikely to be any conciliation. Neuroscientist Walker, who started his career as a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School before coming to believe the two fields of psychiatry and sleep were interconnected, has been wiring up sleep subjects for more than 20 years. In this accessible but impressively documented book, he describes both the benefits of sleep and dreaming and the critical health issues that arise from insufficient sleep. With serious sleep deprivation, the brain suffers loss of memory and learning capacity, emotional and mental health stress, aggression, hallucination, high blood pressure and hormonal imbalances. Frankly, reading this book can keep you up at night.
Walker looks at the curve of sleep patterns over a lifetime, mapping children’s late-breaking circadian rhythms (children may have an excuse for dragging their feet to school), the maturation of the brain from back to front (your teenager really is functioning with less than a total brain) to dismissing the myth that older adults don’t need more sleep, arguing that factors such as increased medications, social drinking and the need to get up in the dark are disruptive. Lack of sleep is also linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Walker takes on insomnia, narcolepsy, sleeping pills, decoding of dreams (including anecdotes about Keith Richards and Mary Shelley), and comes down hard on the extreme danger of driving on too little sleep—friends don’t let friends drive drowsy.