The World Champion of Sleep Has a Fear

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.57.47Gorging myself on books as a teenager there was one title I could never commit to: The Bible. What if it made me pious just as life was becoming fun in so many impious ways? It just wasn’t worth the risk.

The same fear gripped me when this book landed on my Proustian bed-desk-sofa. What if becoming aware of the problems other people have with sleeping turned me insomniac?

I have no trouble sleeping whatsoever unless my mean-spirited physical trainer has made me do squats and jumping about in the gym. On such occasions, in the middle of the night, my legs become possessed by the spirit of the roadrunner and I churn the sheets and pillows all about the room like a Nutribullet. Even so, I am not really woken by the festival of activity. When at noon, I hit the 43rd snooze button of the day and finally open my eyes I am upside down, lamps have been smashed to the floor, and my digital watch tells me I have completely my steps for the day …and yet I feel fully rested.

Being such an accomplished sleeper I had a lot to risk. Yet, I have always been intrigued by sleep. My young sister used to cackle in her sleep; Cast iron admission of guilt for all her brazen criminality. “Darling, it doesn’t prove she broke your Lego castle”, my mum would say in her naivety.

My even younger brother once sleep-walked into my bedroom, opened a draw and relieved himself in it. When he walked out he was sleep-smirking.

Let me cut to the chase. I have read the book and so far I am still enjoying the sleep of a fairytale princess. The book has helped, in fact. For while it is short it is dense and casts a sceptical academic-philosophical eye over everything you have ever heard about REM, mattresses, dreams, narcolepsy, Freud, sleep and depression, biphasic sleep patterns, sleep debt and guilt-driven insomnia. And the more you learn the more you realise that we know everything and nothing about sleep. This is fascinating and depressing. But it appears to be the case.

Consider Rapid Eye Movement. It was once thought to mirror the gaze of the subject in the dream. Thus if a sleeper dreamed of watching a table tennis match their closed eyes dart left and right as if they were watching the game in real life.

But that theory was abandoned. Something else is going on.

REM and Non-REM sleep appear in pairs. For an adult REM sleep follows NREM and in very simplistic terms the cycle repeats four times. REM was long considered to be the period of sleep during which memories were stored, cells repaired and ideas formed. Unlike adults babies begin sleep in a state of REM.   So do people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. So REM could be a way of creating systems for dealing with difficult or confusing memories. Babies need to create storage and language systems and PTSD sufferers need to create a new system from scratch.

REM was commonly thought to be the period during which the sleeper dreamed while NREM was dreamless. But later analysis found that the deepest sleep, the fourth wave of NREM was as abundant with dreams as any REM phase.  NREM4 for example is the period during which children have night terrors. Further experiment suggests that REM is the phase during which the mind encrypts scary ideas and memories into less disturbing idiosyncratic subconscious symbolism. In that case dreams during REM, because they are disguised by symbolism are less scary than dreams during the NREM deep sleep. The deeper you sleep, the less encrypted and symbolic the dreams become. Consequently REM sleep may be less fraught and thus mentally quieter sleep than deep sleep. This seemingly endless fractal breakdown of each element of sleep is characteristic of the book. There are no answers.

Except these:

My brother was awake and my sister broke the Lego.

And for giving me license to claim this is absolutely so because I now know more about sleep than 90% of everyone else this book gets the thumbs up.


I read: Why Can’t We Sleep?

by: Darian Leader