That Shakespeare is a clever bloke. He has a quote for everything and in this case it is ‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ – which pretty much covers this fascinating study of something called ‘sleep science’. I will admit that I was initially dubious about the word ‘science’ but most of the source materials listed at the end of the text are respected scientific journals like ‘Science‘ and ‘The Lancet‘ so there is certainly a solid basis to Professor Wiseman’s claims.
So, what did I learn? Quite a bit in the end – some factoids which would not be out of place on an episode of QI* and some really useful and practical hints and tips which I will be using to improve both the quality and quantity of my own sleep. It turns out that we are, in these modern times, becoming chronically sleep deprived from a very early age – this didn’t happen before the age of electricity so next time you can’t sleep maybe you should be blaming Thomas Edison. There have been a lot of news reports recently blaming our collective insomnia on the devices (tvs, laptops and smart phones) which we have allowed into our bedrooms: this book goes into some detail about exactly why these things are a problem.
Richard Wiseman is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire so it should be no surprise that this book, despite covering an awful lot of psychology, neuroscience and other clever stuff, is an entertaining read. It is full of anecdotes – about a DJ trying to stay awake for 8 days, researchers living in caves to discover if we still have a cycle of sleeping and waking even when we don’t see daylight for weeks and how sleep deprivation led to one of the largest environmental disasters ever – and helps you to assess what sort of sleep you are currently getting. It also makes a good case for trying to get more and better sleep – some of the horror stories about the effects of sleep deprivation on drivers in particular is, ironically, going to be keeping me awake at nights.
Not getting enough good sleep can contribute to obesity, some cancers, high blood pressure and reduced life expectancy generally. A decent night’s sleep can improve your complexion and flush toxins from your brain cells. And all this is before we get to the benefits and purpose of dreams. The best part of this book is that, with a bit of work, it seems you can learn how to avoid jet-lag, improve the quality of your sleeping and, in some cases, learn how to exert control over your dreams. In the interests of science I’m considering an early night and thinking happy thoughts (possibly involving Benedict Cumberbatch….)
* Did you know that older people, who were raised on black and white television, are over 3 times more likely to dream in monochrome than those who had access to colour tv as children?