“Sleepfaring” – A Journey Through Sleep

I’ve just finished reading Jim Horne’s book on the science of sleep: Sleepfaring. As someone with terrible trouble sleeping, I knew I had to buy this book to see out the lonely, dark, wee hours of the night.


Sleepfaring

Although Sleepfaring is actually a serious look at the science of sleep, it is written with a dry wit which provides an amazing amount of material without appearing as information overload. From explaining that some animals go to sleep with half of their brain at a time (dolphins) to describing the (self-inflicted!) effects of sleep-deprivation on someone who stayed awake for 11 days (264 hours!), this book is a treasure trove for boring the pants off everyone at your next party with all sorts of weird and wonderful sleep-related trivia. Moreover, as sleep scientists discovered, quite a number of participants in sleep-deprivation experiments “passed through periods of giddiness and silly laughter, like addled drunks, when their behaviour became uninhibited” [p.80]. So, when you’ve had a few too many glasses of sauvignon blanc at that party, you can afterwards explain away all of your obstreperous and rambunctious conduct simply to manifesting the symptoms of chronic insomnia! At least, that’s my new excuse and I’m sticking to it!

Horne takes you through various types of sleep experiments; what REM and non-REM sleep are; what alpha, beta, theta, and delta waves really are; the effects of sleepiness on driving – i.e., don’t do it!; the body clock or circadian rhythm; how to beat jetlag; dreams; how much sleep we really need and insomnia (I didn’t think he was terribly sympathetic to sufferers – i.e., they’re really just stress-pots, rather unfair); sleep apnoea; sleep in children and much more.

The Important Stuff

Disappointingly, no new wonderful insights are offered into the causes or treatment of insomnia beyond the usual suggestions:
– try to deal with stress and worries during the waking day – i.e., before you go to bed;
– the bedroom should be a place for relaxation and sleep only, not a workplace;
– hide the alarm clock, for you only need to know when to get up, not to be worrying and fretting about how little sleep you seem to be getting and making the whole problem worse;
– when you wake up/can’t get over – give up, get up, and go into a different room and do a jigsaw puzzle. Apparently, this is better and more engaging for the mind than passive activities like reading or watching tv and thus more likely to make you sleepy. Repeat if necessary. This was a new suggestion to me;
– Have a warm bath before bed. Apparently, our body temperature drops slightly in preparation for sleep and after a bath, our bodies overcompensate by trying to rid themselves of excess heat which aids in our preparation for bed.
– The most harsh way to try to reset the body clock is through a drastic sleep restriction programme. E.g., most people sleep an average of 7-7.5 hours a night. Thus, ideally we wish to sleep between midnight and 7am. Therefore, on the first night we subtract an hour from each end of the spectrum – in other words, go to bed at 1am and get up at 6am. Even should you only get three hours sleep that night, you’ll know that you’ll have built up sleep pressure for the following night. Eventually, this is changed to midnight and getting up at 7am. If you rigidly stick to this program, your body clock will reset itself. Just remember, no naps during the day. Getting as much sunlight as possible during the day helps get your body acclimatized to daytime wakefulness. (I’ve tried this, and it wasn’t exactly successful – I just ended up an exhausted wreck and zombie – maybe it’ll work for you.)

Anyway, if you’re interested in a journey through the science of sleep, you’ll enjoy this book. Well worth reading. 7/10

To buy: In the US; In the UK (cheapest through the Book Depository – free worldwide shipping).

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