A broad investigation of sleep that should prove useful “for everyone who wants to improve their sleep.”
For years, British science writer Nicholls (The Galápagos: A Natural History, 2014, etc.) suffered miserable daytime drowsiness before doctors made the correct diagnosis: narcolepsy. This revelation gave him a personal interest in the science of sleep, which he puts to good use in this lively, accessible overview. The author recounts the history of sleep, describes the latest research, and chronicles his “hundreds of interviews that I have conducted over the last five years with scientists, doctors and others like me who suffer from some kind of dysfunctional sleep,” but he devotes most of the text to sleep pathology. Nicholls begins with case histories of bad sleepers, including himself, and what scientists know. All higher animals sleep; it’s essential for life. There are many explanations as to why, so no one knows the correct one. Sleepers pass through distinct stages including dreaming, a subject that fascinates scientists no less than laymen. All mammals dream, human for about two hours every night. Like sleep, dreaming may be essential. All cultures believe dreams have deep significance, but researchers are skeptical. Nicholls writes fluidly about disorders of sleep, including insomnia, nightmares, and sleepwalking, as well as conditions with wildly bizarre features, from hallucinations to terrors to murderous behavior to paralysis. He shows particular interest in his own problem, narcolepsy (“a wildly variable spectrum disorder”), an approach that is particularly illuminating. Besides intense sleepiness, it includes oddball features such as cataplexy (sudden collapse without losing consciousness), sleep paralysis (inability to move when awakening), and vivid hallucinations when falling asleep. Science writing has a modest audience, medical advice a huge one, and Nicholls offers a pleasing combination; readers looking for self-help should consult his excellent bibliography.
A fine introduction to sleeping: when it works and when it doesn’t.