Why We Sleep
by Matthew WalkerPublished 2017
Just finished Matthew Walker's Why We Sleep. I think I only started it because I was reading enthusiastic recommendations on Reddit and Hacker News. E.g. under the heading 'What are some books you've read lately that have completely changed the way you think?' And I think that I need my mind changing a little bit lately. Not about anything in particular, but I feel like since things have gotten quite good for me, I haven't needed to think critically about any of the decisions that I make.
And but so it was a worthwhile read. I think that up until now my approach to sleep has been very passive. As in it's just something that I had to do at night. Consider my long-held perspective that it's mostly a waste of time, a waste of two-thirds of our lives, and if I could somehow medicate it out of my life (along with eating, cf. Huel), I would.
I think Why We Sleep did a good job of rattling me out of that sort of perspective, though. Which, so, yeah, it accomplished the purpose I read it for. The book's major thesis is that sleep is an underappreciated human function and that it's imperative that we take it a little more seriously.
He's right, of course, that sleep is, in the modern world, barely even considered essential anymore. From Mark Wahlberg's weird schedule, to Elon Musk's assertion that he works a 120-hour workweek (leaving at most 7 hours of sleep/day assuming he's not doing anything but work and sleep), to Arnold Schwarzenegger's claim that he sleeps six hours/night—people that society hails as the getters-done are dominantly, in their own ways, sort of anti-sleep. Getting rest is seen as an indulgence at best and a sign of weakness at worst. The effect of this perspective is reflected in the decreasing amounts of sleep we're getting these days. I don't have the facts on me but rest assured a new one crops up every five or six pages on average in Walker's book.
Incidentally I'm hoping that the popularity of this book is going to propel increased sleep amounts into the popular consciousness as like a 'wellness strategy' or something. Like people will start boasting on Twitter about how much sleep they've been able to have, as some sort of virtue signal or something.
Because where before I saw sleep the same as everyone else on Twitter—basically as an inconvenience that the body forces upon us to prevent us being too productive—now I can see it as another piece of body maintenance that we need to, like, perform. It should fall into the same category as eating or working out: activities that we make conscious decisions around and which have a palpable impact on the day built around them. Eat a bad breakfast and it sticks with you. A bad session in the gym sets the tone for at least the rest of the morning. Poor sleep will obviously put you in a bad place, but we've got strategies to medicate against these effects, and whole comedic ecosystems built around these medication strategies (viz. bad 'I need my coffee jokes', responses to the kinds of people who make these jokes, etc).
Not that fitness or nutrition don't have similar cultural ecosystems, but we seem to take them seriously at least. Cultural heroes don't generally compete to see who has spent the longest out of the gym, or who has eaten the most on any given day (and if they do, it's generally in support of muscle-building (viz. 'eat big to get big)). Yet they compete for the longest work day. We all do.
I thought I was on the hustle when I was only getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night last year. But I didn't improve in the gym, I made mistakes at work, and I was emotionally distant from Sam, especially at times when she needed me. Compare that to this year, where I've increased my sleep to at least 8 hours a night (sometimes more, holy smokes): I've put on a bit of muscle, improved my skills at work, and gotten married, which, hello. Obviously more has changed from last year to this than just my sleep schedule, but I'd be stupid not to believe that sleep hasn't played a part.
Still, I think there are a couple of things I'd like to have read about in Why We Sleep. In particular, I was surprised that Walker didn't go into the effects of too much sleep. Not that it's a problem for a significant part of the population. But it makes me wonder what the effect of a 10-hour night is on my body, especially compared to a 6-hour night. It's clear that my body undergoes changes and work while I sleep—so what happens in there when I oversleep?
Why We Sleep wasn't a page-turner, by any stretch. Which I think made me question my relationship with the book a little bit. I've read a lot of other, like, non-chronological fiction and I've been compelled to keep turning pages, to stay up late reading and learning, and I wasn't, particularly, here. Still, I think the book accomplished its purpose. It's changed the way that I think about sleep—and more importantly, it's changed my actual sleep behaviour. I've chosen a bed time and a wake time and I've stuck faithfully to it for the past week. Has it changed how I feel? That's maybe yet to be seen.