May 2006

Kevin Arthur


Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams by Paul Martin

Sleep doesn't get much respect in today's fast-paced, productivity-obsessed society. It's just wasted time, a maintenance task forced on us by our biology. If we could hire someone else to do it for us, or engineer our bodies to require less of it, we surely would. We're so busy that we're now sleeping less per night than ever, and we're neglecting the consequences. Most of us are living in a continual state of sleep-deprivation, and it's making us sick, accident-prone, less intelligent and even less productive than we think.

Paul Martin thinks we're a "sleep-sick society," and that it's time we gave sleep the attention it deserves in science, medicine, education and social policy. That thesis is at the heart of Martin's book, which is also an engaging tour of of the art in sleep science. We learn that sleep is more than just a lack of consciousness -- there's as much happening in our brains when we're asleep as when we’re awake. The purpose of all that activity is still somewhat mysterious, though, as sleep science is an immature field compared to our wakeful-mind sciences.

The book is filled with information that ranges from basic to esoteric. What's behind circadian rhythms and sleep stages? Why is sleeping while sitting up never as restful as sleeping while horizontal? Is there a real difference between early- and late-risers or are some of us just lazy? How long can you go without sleep before it kills you? Why is "sleeping on it" a sound learning strategy? How do some animals manage to sleep with only half of their brain at a time?

Martin catalogs not only the mechanisms and benefits of sleep, which are not just biological, but also the consequences of too little sleep. Sleep deprivation manifests itself much like drunkenness does, and Martin argues that we should begin to take it just as seriously:
"Those who stumble through life on only five or six hours of poor-quality sleep a night are admired for their stamina, in the way that people were once admired for their capacity to drive cars while drunk. When it comes to sleep, we are still doing the equivalent of encouraging boozed-up drivers to have one more for the road."

Sleep deprivation impairs our immune system and is also a contributing factor to many of our modern maladies, including ADHD, obesity, learning disorders, and depression. Perhaps most startling is the extent of sleep deprivation among children, on whose growing brains and bodies the ill effects are amplified. According to a 2006 survey by the National Sleep Foundation, 45% of adolescents don't get enough sleep, and that figure rises to 75% by the 12th grade.

What can we do about this situation? Learn to appreciate sleep and foster education about its value and the risks of sleep deprivation. Participate in events like the National Sleep Foundation's "Sleep Awareness Week" (which took place in March). Promote shorter work hours and even napping at work. Today's more enlightened employers provide free gym memberships, healthy cafeteria food, and alternative health benefits, but neglect altogether the importance of good sleep habits for health. The rise of "slow" movements around the world is encouraging and could tie in with a new sleep awareness movement. (Carl Honoré's book, In Praise of Slowness, makes a good companion read on that topic.)

Even if you don't need convincing about the undervaluation of sleep in our society, you'll find Counting Sheep an engaging and entertaining read. What elevates the book above being just another good popular science book is the prose -- light, quick, and laced with dry humor -- and the wealth of literary asides and references. Martin's perspective is refreshingly broad for a science writer, and his book deserves recognition as a literary work, and not just a science text. Read it before bed and you'll wake up wiser.

Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams by Paul Martin
St. Martin's Griffin
ISBN: 0312327447
432 Pages