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HealthMindfulnessWhy do we sleep? Sleep scientist Matthew Walker answers

We spend a third of our lives sleeping, but most of us know little about sleep -- beyond the fact that we should get eight or nine hours of it. Matthew Walker has one goal with his book, Why We Sleep. He wants readers to doze off.
Alexa Mena Alexa MenaMarch 18, 20217 min
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Why We SleepUnsplash

Matthew Walker has one goal with Why We Sleep: He wants readers to doze off.

This aim is so central that the end of the first chapter of is book he makes this disclaimer: “Should you feel drowsy and fall asleep while reading the book, unlike most authors, I will not be disheartened… feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted.”

Despite the permission to nod off, I didn’t. While the book is loaded with information about everything I never knew about this process, Walker’s upbeat pace keeps his work from being anything but sleep-inducing.

As director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, Walker packs the book with a lot of science. But possibly because he is a neuroscientist, he knows how to pace it for the average brain.

Why We Sleep

We spend a third of our lives sleeping, but most of us know little about it beyond the fact that we should get eight or nine hours. Even then, many of us avoid sleep if we can, because it is for the weak, right? It’s a waste of an opportunity to live our lives fuller, if only we can fill more hours being awake.

Not so, at least according to Walker. The bulk of the book’s 150 pages is given over to explaining how this kind of thinking “proves ruinous to all the major physiological systems of the human body: cardiovascular, metabolic, immune, reproductive”.

In short, too little sleep weakens you in every way imaginable.

Walker, however, is not all doom and gloom. He explains how sleep makes us more attractive, more creative and gives us more “comprehension of the social world”.

Sleep is good.

It turns out that my general grouchy disposition can be attributed to a lack of REM sleep, which is not the deep, but the Rapid Eye Movement phase. Okay, great; all my problems solved. I’ll get more sleep. But what if I can’t?

Those with problems in this area try to override nature with aids like pills, cough syrup or even alcohol.

If Walker could spring from the pages of his book, he would stop you with a firm admonition. Don’t do it. Though drugs might make us think we are sleeping better, it turns out what they actually do is “sedate you out of wakefulness… not induce natural sleep.”

Being comatose is not the same as being asleep.

Walker spends the last section of the book addressing different types of insomnia, work pressure, technology and everything keeping us from sleeping well.

At times, you wonder whether Walker is using the authority of science to scare you into sleeping more. He’s a proselytizer. But this is no bad thing. There are so many benefits to sleep that we should want more of it.

There is plenty in this book that is intuitive, but Walker grounds the self-evident in easy-to-binge science.

But if you don’t care for all of the why’s and how’s, you can skip right to the appendix, where he offers a list of 12 tips.

Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker. Penguin (2018). Dh66, paperback, available at Kinokuniya Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

This article is part of Livehealthy’s first Sleep Week. Starting on March 13 and running up to and including World Sleep Day on March 19, we have seven full days of coverage on everything to do with the one-third of our lives we spend in – or trying to get to – slumber.

Alexa Mena

Alexa Mena

Alexa Mena is a multidisciplinary artist and media editor for When she's not writing for livehealthy, she's thinking about design and how it shapes the human experience.