Book Review: Sleep Thieves

Sleep Thieves:  An Eye-Opening Exploration Into The Science & Mysteries Of Sleep, by Stanley Coren

This book could have been a lot less enjoyable given the author’s approach as a committed believer in evolution, given my own thoughts about that, but the author’s general objectivity was certainly refreshing and the author’s point about our need for sleep and the way that our contemporary society shortchanges this is definitely on point.  My own struggles with sleep are fairly well-documented [1], and have lasted a long time.  As a result, I tend to read a fair amount about sleep, pondering it as a problem not just for myself but also for my particular time and place.  The author does the same thing, putting sleep in a context where the daily cycles of life and a look at other beings and their sleep needs and looks at sleep in history and determines that our current society sleeps far less than it should and that the consequences are immense.  This may not be new insight to those who have struggled with sleep, but the way the author puts a great deal of myths about sleep to bed is worthwhile and enjoyable even for this rather chronically sleep-deprived person.

The nearly 300 pages of this book are divided into 24 short chapters which look at sleep from a very far-ranging perspective.  The author looks at the curse of Edison on contemporary sleep through his cultural influence (1), and looks at sleep and consciousness (2) and the definition of sleep (3).  The author then looks at the vulnerability of sleep and how it would appear to contradict certain ideas about the survival of the fittest (4) along with the consequences of not sleeping at all (5), cutting down on sleep (6) and only getting a little bit of sleep (7).  The author then looks at circadian rhythms (8) and the times when we are most and least sleepy throughout the day (9), and how sleepiness is something passed down from busy parents to children who need even more sleep than they do (10), as well as blaming a great deal of problems on sleep-deprived teenagers (11).  A look at the way that foods conspire against good sleep (12) and a look at the myth of Ondine’s curse and its role in understanding sleep apnea (13) leads to a look at sleepless nights (14) and the connection between sleep and health (15).  After this comes four chapters that looks at the harrowing consequences of being asleep at the wheel (16), at the operating table (17), on the night shift (18), and in the sky (19).  At this point the author looks at the cost of sleep debt (20), whether we as a culture are chronically sleep-deprived (21), our personal sleep debts (22), the way that our sleepiness can be understood through daylight savings time (23), and closes with a wake-up call to action on the part of readers (24).

There are at least a few aspects of this book that are particularly notable.  For one, our focus on the quantity of “productive” time rather than the harm done to our productivity and creativity and value of life as a result of not sleeping well enough to full recover from how we live is something I have noted at least anecdotally for myself.  Additionally, I was deeply struck by the way that certain aspects of our culture seem perversely designed to cause a great deal of suffering to others–whether that includes the demands we place on the wakefulness of young people, the savage disregard for the well-being of resident interns in hospitals, and the backwards way we look at shiftwork.  Over and over again the author reminds us that many of those who were regarded as paragons of industry and creativity grossly underestimated their own sleeping and napping habits and therefore bequeathed a false idea of how much sleep was necessary for people to live and work at their best.  As a result this book is definitely a helpful one to look at sleep and its importance in our own drowsy and insomniatic world.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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