BOOK REVIEW: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and DreamsWhy We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

For a long time, the questions of why we sleep and dream remained unanswered — or answered speculatively in ways that proved without merit. One presumes the reasons are potent because there seems to be little evolutionary advantage in spending a third of one’s life unconscious of one’s environs and paralyzed (literally in REM sleep, but for all intents and purposes in NREM sleep as one can’t respond to changes in the environment without some part of one’s brain taking note of said changes.) The good news is that Matthew Walker’s book offers insight into what scientists have learned about why we sleep, why we dream, why we become so dysfunctional without doing both, and what it is about modern life and its technologies that has created an apparent crisis of sleep loss. Walker goes beyond the science to discuss what individuals and institutions can do to reduce the harmful effects of sleep deprivation.

The downside of this book is that it’s a bit alarmist, and in contrast to many books of this nature one doesn’t get a good indication of the quality of studies reported. Some pretty brazen claims are made and the reader doesn’t necessarily know if they are preliminary and unvalidated or if they are well established. Here, I’m speaking about the studies that try to isolate out the effect of sleep loss versus all other factors (which is a notoriously messy affair,) and not so much studies that report on the physiological effects of sleep and sleep loss (which I see less reason to not take at face value.) At any rate, any reader who doesn’t fall asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow and sleep straight through 7 hours and fifty-five minutes — waking 5 minutes before the alarm — is likely to feel doomed if they take this book too seriously. And if you ever engaged in shift-work (as I have) or had an intense travel schedule, you are likely to feel that your life is permanently and irretrievably wrecked.

I know this is a book on sleep, but I think it went a little too far in marginalizing all other elements of health and well-being. Walker said that he used to tell people that sleep, nutrition, and exercise were the trifecta of good health, but he ultimately concluded that sleep was more important because diet and exercise were adversely impacted by sleep loss. I don’t disagree that diet and exercise are harmed by sleep loss, but – of course – sleep quality is harmed by lack of proper diet and exercise as well. The author later discusses research confirming this two-way street. I, therefore, have no idea why he changed his initial balanced and reasonable view with one that suggests sleep is the 800-pound gorilla of health and well-being.

The book’s 16 chapters are divided into four parts. Part I (Ch. 1 – 5) lays out what sleep is, how rhythms of sleep are established / disrupted, how much sleep one needs, and how one’s sleep needs change throughout the course of one’s life. Part II (Ch. 6 – 8) explores the benefits of sleeping as well as describing the nature of the damage caused by lack of sufficient sleep. Part III (Ch. 9 – 11) shifts the focus to dreams, and delves into what they appear to do for us. The final part (Ch. 12 – 16) investigates the many ways in which modern life disrupts sleep from blue light in LED’s to arbitrary school and work schedules to cures that are worse than the ill (i.e. sleeping pills.)

There is an appendix that summarizes twelve key changes that an individual can make to get more and better sleep. There are graphics throughout the book, mostly line-drawn graphs to provide visual clarity of the ideas under discussion.

I found this book interesting and informative. I would recommend it for anyone interested in the science of sleep or how they might sleep better, with the exception of anyone who has anxiety about the state of his or her health and well-being. While I understand that Dr. Walker wants to drive changes regarding views and policies that have been wrong-headed or deleterious regarding sleep, I feel he went too far toward suggesting the sky is falling for anyone who gets less than a perfect night’s sleep every night of his life.

View all my reviews

POEM: Faceless

the faceless, in my dreams, play at chores i can’t comprehend,

leaning over consoles  — big powerplant-style consoles,

neither typing nor jabbing buttons,

just sitting, attuned to the lay of the world according to indicator lights

i shout to them

of course, they can’t shout back

but they don’t even flinch

zero acknowledgement

i can’t tell if they have ear-holes,

whether they’re ignoring me, or can’t hear me

i guess i should consider myself lucky

if one turned its faceless face toward me

i’m sure i’d shit a dream brick

POEM: Same Dream in a Different Key

I have a recurring dream.

It never plays out the same,
never looks the same,
the setting differs,
and, besides me, the cast differs.

But it feels the same,
an identical nuance of feeling,
and there’s always a tower —
a high tower that I don’t think I ever top.
Sometimes, its a bamboo scaffold.
Other times, there’s gilt ornamentation around the elevators,
but there’s some common towericity… towerness?

There’s also a man on the tower who thinks himself a holy man,
but I think he’s a fraud.
I’m not sure whether I think he’s a fraud during the dream,
or only once I wake up.

But they say you are every person in your dream.
So, that makes me a fraud and a self-professed holy man,
but how can a person who never claims authenticity be a fraud?
I’m not sure what genuine means in this mysterious world,
and don’t get me started on what I don’t know about being a holy man.

I have a recurring dream.

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. VIII [Sleep Deprived]

This month, I skipped two consecutive nights sleep to explore the effect of sleep deprivation on consciousness. Forty-eight hours without sleep may not sound like much. A two-day fast will make you feel hungry, but is hardly a challenge for the body of a healthy individual. Of course, most people could go a few weeks without food as long as they could reduce physical activity.

Sleep may be more closely analogized to water. It’s often said that a person can go a week without water, but some people have succumbed after three or four days. The world record for consecutive time without sleep is 11 days and 25 minutes, set by Randy Gardner in 1964, but most people will experience some severe challenges after a few days, and after even one day it’s not safe to do many fairly rudimentary life tasks (i.e. driving, making important life decisions, doing any work that requires concentration.) [Note: Gardener points out that it was day three when he started to feel nausea and the challenge started to feel daunting.] My choice of two days was largely influenced by the limit of how long I could go without being productive. Into the second day, maintaining the level of concentration necessary to edit or write finished product becomes almost impossible for me and it rapidly gets worse, and I certainly couldn’t safely drive my scooter.

Unfortunately, I’m no stranger to sleep deprivation, though it was mostly in my youth. That makes it sound like I was a party-animal, though I wasn’t (certainly not by the standards of true party-animals.) In truth, in the military I started out working twelve hour night shifts, and I found I could rarely sleep more than four-ish hours per day. Later (still in the military) I worked days at a base in Georgia, but I would frequently (once, sometimes twice, a week) travel from Warner Robins to Atlanta after work for martial arts classes. Often, hanging out with friends after night classes, I would return to base in the wee morning hours and — on a number of occasions — missed a night’s sleep because I didn’t have enough time to get in even a solid two hours before I had to be ready for the 6am shift change. (Note: I’m a groggy napper. While some people swear by naps, I find they tend to make me even more fuzzy-headed — especially if I’m in need of more sleep than I have time to get.) [FYI: My personal record for sleeplessness is a little longer than I did this time — 55 hours-ish. It was also when I was a young man in the military.]

Where sleep is very different (from food or water) is that until recently we didn’t have the foggiest idea why we needed it. Biologists could tell us why we need air, water, and food decades ago, but no one knew why we needed sleep — only that bad stuff happened in pretty soon when we didn’t get sleep. I was under the impression that we still didn’t know (and it’s probably true that we don’t yet have a complete picture.) However, I started reading Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and he suggests that it’s not that we don’t know why we sleep, but rather that it’s not the simple one-to-one cause-and-effect relationship that sleep researchers had hoped to discover as a Holy Grail of sleep causation. Walker says we know a great deal about why we sleep, it’s just that there are a large number of aspects of our body’s operation that hinge on sleep. In other words, it’s a complex many-to-one relationship between causes and sleep. [Another reason I kept a limit on this experience was the book’s discussion of how many adverse impacts sleep disruption can have, and — more importantly — how long-lived the effects of sleep deprivation can be.]

There were a number of ways the sleep deprivation was felt. Of course, the predominant sensation was just an incredible pressure to go to sleep, i.e. heavy eyelids, mental drift, and “head-nodding” micro-sleep. There’s a great deal of discussion about how memory degrades under sleep deprivation, because sleep / dreams seem to be heavily involved in the memory process. I didn’t notice any memory defects [any more than I might normally have.] However, I readily noticed a decline in concentration and focus. After a day without sleep, I found that my ease of proof-reading / editing was significantly reduced even when I did it during those times when I was most awake and didn’t really feel particularly sleepy. A one-hour task would take decidedly more than that, and I recognized that I shouldn’t do any finished work because even if I took twice as long I’d likely still miss mistakes. Toward the end of the second day, I had trouble even following a sitcom story on the television (thought that was at the point in circadian rhythms when I was most desirous of sleep.)

The other mental effect I noticed was a mild altered sensory perception. This was nothing like the psilocybin tea altered perception. The first thing I notice was a little bit of movement in my visual field if I zoned out while staring at at the floor (and zoning out happens much more than it ordinarily would after a good night’s sleep.) Again, this wasn’t vivid like the shrub that sinuously wound in a serpentine fashion when I tried psilocybin tea. Rather it was just a kind of tiny “stretching” of floor surface when I looked down. You’d have to pay attention for it and might rub one’s eye to try to get rid of it. The second thing I noticed was some auditory strangeness. I heard a barking dog in a passing car, and it was as if that one sound was turned up even as the car was getting further away (or perhaps like the other sounds were turned down. All I know is that the barking of the dog took a dominant position in my auditory awareness. I wasn’t anything wild, like the dog talking to me. I suspect that would take another couple days of complete sleep deprivation. And I have no particular anxiety about dogs or barking noises.)

Physically, there were a few other noteworthy effects. First, I found myself getting chilly even with no AC on and even after I turned the fan off. What’s important to note is that I tend to run hot, and in Bangalore if I feel chilly it probably means I have the flu. I’ve known for a long time that thermoregulation is disrupted during sleep. (This is why one may go to bed comfortable and wake up in a sweat puddle, or — for some, I suppose — go to bed comfortable and wake up freezing. It’s not necessarily a change in the room’s temperature, it’s that your body isn’t so much adjusting the difference between room temperature and body temperature anymore.) I found the chill interesting. The fact that I wasn’t sleeping seemed to me should have meant that reduced thermoregulation should be irrelevant. However, after the fact I learned (again in the Walker book) that body temperature changes with one’s bodily rhythms, and that is presumably what I was feeling.

Second, I noticed a very mild rumbly-tummy effect. I didn’t realize how much sleep problems can be tied into eating problems until reading about it, but I have noticed in the past that my stomach gets a sensation that is akin to being hungry if I’m on no sleep — even if I’ve not been without food (at least not more than I normally would be through the night.)

Those were the most noticeable effects. I can see why some people have had similar experiences while severely sleep deprived as during mystical experiences of other cause (e.g. hallucinations from consuming substances, severe fasting, etc.) Still, for me, the long and short of it was that sleep deprivation had (in contrast to the the other practices I’ve done in this series) a clearly negative impact on the performance of body and mind. From difficulty concentrating to a slow time when running, my body was hindered by lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation diminished my mental and physical competence with no offsetting benefit that I could determine (other than assuaging my curiosity.) 

Next month’s post on experiencing altered states of consciousness will be on a mystery topic. [Which may or may not be my way of admitting I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet.] 

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VII [Lucid Dreaming]

Lucid dreaming is the act of becoming aware that one is in a dream while dreaming. It’s called “Dream Yoga” in some Eastern traditions (most notably, Tibetan [Vajrayana] Buddhism.) Many people pursue lucid dreaming because they find it just too cool to experience the world of dreams consciously, but — for those who don’t — the natural question is “why bother?”  Well, it gives one an unprecedentedly vivid insight into one’s subconscious mind. [For those who are still wondering “why?” This post is probably not for you.]

Since I was young, I’ve occasionally experienced lucid dreams. But it wasn’t until recent years that I began a dream yoga practice — which I had discontinued until resuming it for this month’s study. Those unfamiliar lucid dreaming might wonder how one “practices” becoming aware that one is in a dream in the midst of dreaming. If one didn’t come to the table with a talent for lucidity in dreams, one can’t exactly do anything about it in the middle of REM sleep (rapid eye movement, when the bulk of dreaming occurs.)  A dream yoga practice consists of actions one takes during the day to help facilitate becoming lucid during one’s dreams. These actions include:

  • Journaling one’s dreams (i.e. writing down whatever one remembers of one’s dreams as soon as possible so that one builds the capacity to remember dreams, which can be ephemeral.)
  • Doing reality checks in waking life whenever one notices anything that has an unreal quality about it. This is done in an attempt to train your brain’s BS detector — that’s obviously not how neuroscientists refer to it, but in waking consciousness we have a potent ability to notice and focus our attention on apparent incongruities. The parts of the brain that manage that responsiveness tend to be down for the count during sleep. Hence, in a dream one can walk out of one’s bedroom onto the Serengeti Plains without a second thought. So you are attempting to train your brain to become aware when the anomalous takes place. If it works right, you will begin to do the reality checks in your dreams as well. Of course, real life offers much more subtle seeming incongruities, hence the need to be on the look out for them. There are two approaches to reality check with which I’m familiar. The one I use is to count my fingers, and then flip my hand over and count them again. In a waking state, I always have five digits during counts. In dreams, my hand does some funky stuff. An alternate method is to look at a clock or watch, look away, and then look back at it. In real life, only a second or two will have passed, but in a dream the times will likely be entirely different.
  • Bedtime resolutions to remember one’s dreams and to become lucid during them. For yogis and yoginis, this is like a sankalpa, a resolution that one repeats during yoga nidra (“yogic sleep,” a yogic relaxation and mind development technique that — ironically — doesn’t involve sleep but rather a prolonged hypnogogic state [between waking and sleep.]) The resolution should be a short statement without negation that is repeated exactly the same way several times.
  • Meditative practices that recall dream settings. One practice that I stumbled onto is done in a meditative state. When my conscious mind quieted and I was experiencing subconscious imagery, I found that I could remember many more of the settings in which dreams take place. I have a lot of recurring settings for dreams. [Typical of dreams, these places don’t always look exactly the same, but they feel like they are meant to be the same place.]

Long story short, one is doing two basic things in the practice of dream yoga. First, you’re trying to remember your dreams better. As I suggested, you could be becoming lucid in dreams every night, but if you don’t remember them you’re not gaining any conscious insights from them. Second, you’re trying to recognize the dream state by way of the bizarre incongruities that take place in dreams.

I should point out that mine is a bare bones practice, there are other activities one can do as well. Really hardcore practitioners set alarms in an attempt to wake themselves up in the midst of a dream. This allows them to remember dreams better and to help them become aware they are in a dream when they return to the dream after going back to sleep. This isn’t so far fetched as it might sound. We tend to dream in cycles of around 90 minutes and proceed through the same sequence of mind states from waking consciousness through hypnogogic state through various stages of sleep into a hypnopompic state and the back to waking consciousness. So, there is a degree of predictability on which to base one’s alarm estimate. I’m not so keen on disrupting my sleep. [Part of the reason that I discontinued practice is that I found I really only remembered lucid dreams when my sleep was troubled. (Usually it is not so much “troubled” as I when I’m sleeping lightly because I’ve slept longer than usual — e.g. occasionally oversleeping on the weekend.)  If I sleep like a baby, I typically don’t remember lucid dreams — that doesn’t mean I’m not having them, but I wouldn’t know if I did.]

Even though a dream yoga practice has often seemed to have little influence on my having [or, perhaps more accurately, remembering] lucid dreams, this month I’ve had five that I remembered — a couple of which I only remembered the in-dream reality check (counting fingers.) [A warning to would-be lucid dreamers, its possible to wake yourself up with the excitement of becoming aware that you are in a dream.] I’ve been consistently journaling and have picked up doing more reality checks. [Bangalore is a great place for this because it’s in constant flux, so I’m forever having “was that there yesterday” moments and “has that looked like that for the past five years” moments as I move about the town.]

It’s been fun coming back to this practice. I’m one of those who doesn’t really need another reason for trying to dream lucidly other than the fact that I’m so in awe of being in a dream and knowing that anything my mind can conjure might come next. Still, the lucid dreams I’ve had this month have offered some interesting features to contemplate the meaning of, including: faceless people, being on some kind of backward moving speed-walk while I tried to go investigate a scene in front of me, and something akin to being in a video game.

I’m leaning toward doing a short stint of sleep deprivation for next month, if I can find two days or so to safely give it a try (i.e. no need to drive or do anything else requiring fresh faculties.) I’ve gone about 54 hours without sleep before (not for its own sake, but because of the situation at hand,) and know it can have some interesting effects.

BOOK REVIEW: The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

The Unlimited Dream CompanyThe Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The protagonist, Blake, crashes a stolen small aircraft into the Thames River beside the sleepy English town of Shepperton. In short order, Blake discovers that he cannot escape Shepperton and gradually he comes to realize that he can do anything else that he can imagine. This gradual discovery is like a dream becoming lucid. At first the world seems right even though there is plenty that is odd about it, as is the case when one is dreaming and oddities and anomalies don’t trigger a response as they do when one is conscious. Despite the fact that Ballard captures the surrealism of the dream state well, and even uses the word “dream” in the title, the reader is never sure what is going on exactly until the book’s conclusion. Is Blake dreaming everything? (including the plane theft?) Or, was he knocked unconscious in the crash? Or, is something supernatural going on that is dreamlike, but not a dream. There are a cast of townsfolk who sometimes behave oddly, but who seem like they have enough depth to be more than projections of Blake’s subconscious. The unfolding of the story involves the surreal nature of Shepperton becoming more obvious as the reader — little-by-little — gets a better idea of what is going on there.

Readers with a prudish streak should be aware that references to sex are ubiquitous. It’s not that there are a lot of graphic sex scenes, but – as in a dream state, the subconscious mind is at the fore and primal urges take center-stage. Blake imagines having sexual relations with everyone in the sleepy town. He doesn’t, but he speculates about it. There is also symbolic sexual reference – e.g. flowers growing from his seed. Frequent references are made to Blake being naked, but the townsfolk not realizing it. There’s generally not graphic description, this recurring device primarily serves as a means to show how the other people in the story aren’t lucid, because Blake’s nudity doesn’t set off their weird-o-meters as it would in waking consciousness.

I enjoyed this book, and, if you like surreal and trippy stories, you should give it a read.

View all my reviews

POEM: Dreams

dreams, my friend, are lost on you
you think them false when they are true
you think them true when they are truer
you think them from a subconscious sewer

you feed your monsters, but make them ride alone
then can’t tell the imposters when they’re full-grown
they say that nature outstrips nurture
and the seeker outwits the searcher

but who can know such things

POEM: Dream Time

Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali




i saw a faceless clock tower

it lacked a mouth to shout the hours

and so it was that time stood still

precariously perched upon a hill

ready for some unsteadying force

to send it on a careening course


with the hapless village below

BOOK REVIEW: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Lathe of HeavenThe Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book’s lead character, George Orr, runs afoul of the law for borrowing the prescription cards of friends and acquaintances. But Orr isn’t a run-of-the-mill junky out to get prescription painkillers. Instead, he’s taking medications to keep from dreaming, because Orr’s dreams change reality—sometimes in subtle, and sometimes in drastic, ways. Of course, the world would be chaotic if the dreams only changed the present, but they also retroactively change the past to be consistent with the new present. Orr is the only one who remembers both the new and old timelines, but he’s not happy with these god-like powers–especially given the chaotic and unpredictable possibilities that arise from the subconscious mind. Not unexpectedly, Orr is reluctant to tell anyone this because they will think he’s mad.

Orr gets assigned to voluntary therapy with a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders. Orr tells Dr. William Haber about his unique condition, but, once the doctor recognizes Orr is telling the truth, Haber draws the opposite conclusion from Orr. Haber thinks that Orr should be using his “power” to make the world a better place, rather than being scared of it and trying to avoid it. Haber presents the classic example of good intentions gone awry. While the doctor does use the hypnotically induced sessions to improve his own career situation, the worst outcomes result from the doctor’s attempts to help Orr (without Orr’s approval or prior knowledge) to improve the world. The law of unintended consequences is ever-present, and the dreams guided by Haber often result in “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situations.

This is an interesting premise in a highly readable book. The contrast between Orr and Haber reflects a broader societal tension between those who think they can engineer a utopian future and those who think that one’s attempts will always blow up in ways that one can’t anticipate. It should be noted that the title comes from “The Book of Chuang Tzu” and the virtue of “wu-wei” or “actionless action” in contrast to the corresponding vice of trying to manhandle the world into a desired state is central to the story.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a short novel with a clear theme that is thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book for fiction readers, and highly recommend it for readers of sci-fi and speculative fiction.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-GlassAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

These are two separate children’s books, but the edition I read is one of several in which they are bundled together. Besides the fact that each is only a little over 100 pages, they are conveniently bundled because they share the same lead character, Alice, and take place in similar (arguably the same) alternate realities: Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World. These are worlds in which strange events are common place and there’s little compulsion to behave logically– worlds in which imagination rules and reality only provides a subconscious shaping of events.

In the former book, Alice enters the alternate world by tumbling down the rabbit hole and in the later she does so by stepping through a mirror (i.e. a looking-glass.) Each of these books follows Alice from her entry into the alternate reality, through a series of adventures, and then back to the real world.

Not much of a review is necessary because even though—given you are reading a review—you probably haven’t read the books yet, you will be familiar with many of the characters and references from widespread appearance in pop culture. I already mentioned the tumble down the rabbit hole, as does Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in “The Matrix.” That movie also references chasing the white rabbit, as does a famous song by Grace Slick. You’ve also probably seen or heard references to the grin of the Cheshire Cat and the frenetic behavior of the Mad Hatter. “Through the Looking-Glass” features several well-known characters from English nursery rhymes (e.g. Tweedledee & Tweedledum as well as Humpty Dumpty.)

It’s also not so important to get into plot because the stories are purposefully chaotic and exist in a world of loose logic. The strings of causality are not so strong, but it’s on purpose. It’s supposed to be a strange and surreal world, and it achieves great success in this regard. Events don’t have to make sense; they just have to be imaginable. This doesn’t mean that there is no flow or transitions between the adventures in these books. There is. It’s more easily recognized in “Through the Looking-Glass” in which a game of chess provides an underlying structure for the unfolding of events.

I’d recommend everybody read these books. While I referred to them as “children’s books,” I also agree with Neil Gaiman’s point that that is a nonsense term. So one shouldn’t think one missed the boat and there is no going back.

View all my reviews