Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker: A Review

Matthew Walker introduces Why We Sleep with a rather remarkable disclaimer: “Should you feel drowsy and fall asleep while reading the book […] I will not be disheartened […] please, feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted”.

This disclaimer sets the tone of the entire book; Walker delivers his prose in a lively, witty tone that is extremely compelling and readable. However, his voice does not detract from the book’s serious message. Why, after all, would an author wish for his book to send us to sleep? His answer is brief: “the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life span”.

Walker describes his own relationship with sleep as a “love affair” which he devotes a non-negotiable eight hours a night to. His PHD in Neurophysiology, the study of the central and peripheral nervous system, lead him to try and “crack the code of sleep”. Twenty years later, he believes to have many of the answers to the question of why we “repeatedly and routinely lapse into a state of apparent coma”.

So, what is sleep?

First, Walker explains what sleep actually is and its relationship with modern society. His explanations of the circadian rhythm, which determines the natural rhythms of the body such as when we prefer to sleep and eat, and the sleep cycle, composed of NREM and REM sleep, are clearly written and easy to understand- even for those not of a scientific disposition. Walker also discusses how sleep differs across the species and across the lifespan of a human.

The most interesting takeaway from part one is, to me, how unique sleep is to everyone. Whether you are naturally inclined to get up early or late depends on your circadian rhythm and your age. This, Walker points out, is resolutely at odds with modern society. Teenagers are forced to get up early for school when their inclination is to sleep in later, we tend to view those who stay up and rise late as lazier than their counterparts, and needing little sleep is presented as a sign of strength (see Reagan, Thatcher and Trump for examples). Modern society’s attitude to sleep is, to Walker, catastrophic- and he details exactly why in the following part.

…and why do we need it?

Part two details the results of sleep deprivation. Walker discusses the benefits of sleep for the brain: it helps to select and retain new information and boost creativity. In contrast, the results of sleep deprivation on the brain are dire- lack of attention, emotional irrationality, forgetfulness, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. And what about the rest of your body? Six or less hours of sleep a night damages your cardiovascular system, slows your metabolism and increases a risk of type two diabetes, decreases fertility in men and women and weakens your immune system. Walker suggests that we imagine sleep as a wonder drug that can prevent these problems. His point, that everyone would be queuing up to get it, is simple and effective.

The book temporarily falters at part three, which diverges somewhat from Walker’s argument. Detailing his research in dreams feels disjointed from the preceding and upcoming chapters. That’s not to say that section three isn’t fascinating in its own right. For example, how dreams help the brain to process events which might be upsetting or even traumatic explains the common knowledge that everything is better after a good night’s sleep. Walker does note that there is no need to read the book in chronological order, and perhaps that advice should be heeded to here.

Sleep, society and technology: is there hope for the future?

Why We Sleep’s final section ties together the research laid out in sections one and two. Walker unpacks what stops us from sleeping- whether it’s a sleep disorder such as insomnia or the light from your screen, alcohol, or sleeping pills.

He goes on to detail the negative effects that a lack of sleep has on the workplace, education and healthcare. However, an exploration of how modern technology can be taken advantage of to improve our sleep prevents the book from ending on a solemn note. It’s really worth buying this book for this chapter alone; the possibilities he details here are truly fascinating. They’re also worth praising for the fact that Walker chooses not to denounce technology, but rather embraces it; after all, “we will never put that technological genie back into its bottle, nor do we need to”.

That said, to “reclaim our right to a full night of sleep” is no small matter; in fact, Walker describes the loss of sleep as “the greatest public health challenge we face in the twenty-first century in developed nations”. His book is most definitely a start, apart from one major flaw: it’s certainly going to keep you up at night.

Not sleeping well? Click here to read about what’s causing your restless night. 

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