A yawning chasm

Sleep Thieves
October 18, 1996

If the clock is somewhere between one and four in the afternoon or morning and you are already tiring of this review, Stanley Coren could explain what is happening. The author of this quintessential book on sleep will tell you in simple physiological terms that we are all at our low points somewhere between these hours. But who stops for a siesta? Not anyone who wants to look busy.

The problem with our sleep-deprived world lies somewhere in the relationship between appearing lazy and getting needed sleep. Stalin used to leave a light on in his office all night to give the impression he was working. Too bad for those Soviets who tried to follow his lead. They were not aware he was enjoying a good night's sleep in another room.

The stigma of the lazy snoozer hits home for this writer. If I am woken from an afternoon nap at my home/office by a phone call, my voice will be as pert as that of a McDonald's cashier. I would not want an editor to think I am a malingerer.

Is there some greater reason than not wanting to appear lazy or having workaholic tendencies that pushes us to deprive ourselves of something so vital? Unfortunately Coren does not go further on that point, but he does prove that this world and our lives are harmed by too little sleep.

Coren, a Canadian neuropsychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, uses the term "sleep debt" to describe our increasingly stolen sleep. It is the culprit behind some chilling statistics on the costly damage caused by lack of shut-eye.

The clearing house of sleep stats is perfectly woven into the well-deduced plea for all of us to get more sleep. His arguments are aimed more at those behind the cockpits of airplanes, the cabs of trucks, the control rooms of nuclear reactors and the plungers of medical syringes into our veins.

If only those who set the schedules and norms for industry would read this book and stop devising rules that run counter to the way our bodies operate.

Free from psychojargon, Coren's clear explanations on why humans sleep, how they could sleep better, why they should sleep more and what happens if we continue with this sleep famine will all make perfect sense to more than just those people who have fallen asleep behind the wheel. Although Sleep Thieves offers a feast of sleep-related health facts, perhaps some thoughts on a recent phenomenon like chronic fatigue syndrome would help understand the links Coren points out between immune system upkeep and proper sleep.

Believe it or not, we were meant to have ten hours of sleep. Not necessarily because we need it but, like a layer of fat that the overeater's body can use on a wintry day with no food, those extra hours would come in handy when we begin to be starved of proper rest.

The author employs first-person accounts as a brilliant way of spicing up a book that has to be one of the most accessible pieces of scientific writing around.

Meet the following characters: a teenager who cannot wake up on time despite his father rolling him off the bed and on to the floor, so exhausted is he by an unforgiving school schedule and social life; a medical resident who did not realise he had fallen into a microsleep while assisting an operation; and the disoriented shift worker who thought his healthy cereal's texture and taste were a bit off the morning after his night shift - he was eating Hamster Chow. One example chillingly illustrates the way free enterprise pushes some over the brink.

It happened behind the wheel of a truck on a long haul where the penalty for not getting to the destination on time was no pay cheque. The tragic story is told by a trucker who, along with another colleague over a CB radio, tried in vain to convince an audibly exhausted operator of a rig to pull over and rest. Paramedics found no skidmarks when they pulled the critically injured driver from his mangled 18-wheeler after he killed two people sleeping in a motel room.

This book illustrates how much more creative, slower to anger and less likely to cause an accident humans could be if we would only sleep longer and give into our needs. It also has tips for insomniacs (two aspirins and a glass of warm milk) and parents of small children (a stuffed toy and a routine for the infant) But this book, best of all, could change all of our attitudes about sleeping longer and napping more often. If those working with planes, trains, automobiles and nuclear reactors take it to bed with them, we all may sleep a little easier.

Philip Fine is Canadian correspondent, The THES.

Sleep Thieves: An Eye-Opening Exploration into the Science and Mysteries of Sleep

Author - Stanley Coren
ISBN - 0 684 82304 7
Publisher - Free Press
Price - £14.99
Pages - 304

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