Can sleep be mastered?

Given all the books being written about sleep, it is apropos to ask ourselves if reading all this stuff is doing us any good.  Are we sleeping any better?  Or is the public fetishisation of sleep leaving us worrying and wide awake at night?

In this context, an article by Zoe Heller – “Why we sleep and why we often can’t” – that appears in the December 8 issue of The New Yorker is worth a read.  Zoe Heller has this to say about “The Sleep Revolution”, a best selling how-to guide on sleep by Ariana Huffington:”…her proselytising leaves the misleading and slightly infuriating impression that sleep is a lifestyle choice, a free resource, available to all who care enough to make it a priority.”   She goes on to point out that sleep deprivation, for many of us, is not a choice but a consequence of our circumstances.  Low household income, shift work and belonging to a minority group are all associated with sleep deprivation of a kind that cannot be remedied by simply following sleep hygiene homilies like drinking chamomile tea before bed.  In Zoe Heller’s words – “The tone here is reminiscent of Mrs Pardiggle, in “Bleak House,” distributing improving literature to the slum-dwelling poor. Try telling the lady at the food bank that she should tap into her resilience and sleep her way to the top.”

It is true that that patriarchal advise dished out in “how-to” books is annoying.  But this does not mean that such advice is ineffective.  Clearly, Ms Huffington did not intend her book for the demographic that cannot afford the luxury of chamomile tea or being early to bed.  Her advice will also not work for those diagnosed with insomnia.  In such cases, worrying about sleep may actually have the opposite effect.  For the rest of us, however, sleep hygiene does work.  Mere mindfulness about sleep can powerfully and favourably influence our sleep habits and help improve sleep.  The good news is that even a small increase in sleep efficiency can cause a noticeable improvement in how we feel in the day.

Improving sleep efficiency by 5-10%, while highly desirable from a health point of view, is a relatively low bar.  The question is – “can we truly master sleep?”  Mastering sleep would entail everything from using sleep as a strategic tool before examinations or sports events to using sleep (with or without dreams!) to improve creativity, cognition and memory.  Technology and knowledge available to us today can do all of this.  Devices are being developed that can selectively promote the most restorative phase of sleep – slow wave sleep.  There are also devices that can increase activity in the frontal lobe and promote lucid dreaming.  Even without such devices and in almost every field of human endeavour, from sports to business to warfare, those who seek to improve their performance are using sleep extension and sleep loading as tools to improve performance.

Mastering sleep is not a distant mirage but a current reality.  But the tools available today to master sleep are crude and unfinished.  With these tools, we are only scratching the surface, in terms of how the sleeping brain can be a lever in improving the quality of our waking lives.  As we head into an age where we will see increasing sophistication in how we manage our sleep, one thing is pretty clear – we will need to equip ourselves with a more in-depth and nuanced understanding of our brain and sleep to take advantage of these new tools.  Mastering sleep is the holy grail for good health and performance.  Luckily for us, we live in a century where this holy grail is eminently attainable.

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