Biological clock: Slumber science

Slumber science

As Nobel recompenses work on circadian rhythms, a new book on the science of sleep makes a perfect read before bed

Our biological clock made the news headlines, recently. Earlier this month, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded to a trio of American scientists – Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, Michael W. Young – for their work on the topic. The announcement has, thus, triggered a renewed interest for our sleep patterns.

So how does our biological clock work? A tiny network of nerve cells at the hind part of our brain—referred to as suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) – make up the cogs and wheels of our inner clock. It sets and resets our body, in line with the day-and-night cycles of the Earth. Sleep, therefore, is an inherent part of what scientists refer to as chronobiology, the study of the clock within us.

Interestingly, the recent publication of The Science of Sleep by Wallace Mendelson, retired professor of psychiatry and clinical pharmacology at the University of Chicago, Illinois, United States, is a mere coincidence. Not only does this book remind us why we need sleep but it also tells us what happens if we don’t get enough of it. To give a complete picture of the topic, the author also delves into the history and science of sleep.

With his engaging anecdotes, Mendelson outlines the various social and physiological aspects influencing the quality of our sleep. Then, he goes on to explaining the different stages in the sleep cycle, such as the rapid eye movement sleep (REM) and non-REM sleep (NREM), in the context of human evolution. As part of these explanations, he unveils the details of the methods used to study sleep and the story of people who discovered key aspects of this activity. This can, at times, get a bit technical. A amateur reader not so keen on learning about this level of complexity may yawn. However, it is worth skimming the technical details to pursue the rest of the section, which details how the science of sleep and dreams have evolved.

The explanations on the mechanisms of sleepiness and wakefulness may scare insomniacs, with a bit too much information. Yet, these are essential to understand our dreams. Freud and other sleep and dream researchers would be envious of Mendelson for making their theories so accessible to us.

The story gets a bit noir, as Mendelson walks us through sleep deprivation and other sleep disorders, from insomnia to sleep apnea. He refers to extreme examples of well-known historical characters, like Thomas Edison’s four-hour sleep and Peter Tripp, the American 1950s DJ, who was known for his sleepless marathon. These anecdotes make this book a compelling read.

Mendelson also touches upon the issues responsible or preventing us from getting a good night sleep – from illnesses to lifestyle. In doing so, he starkly reminds sleep deprivation as being one of the most ignored epidemics of our times. Readers, be warned!

Reams of research papers have demonstrated over the past decades the importance of having an earnest sleep. In one of the sections, Mendelson summarises all recent research in a nutshell. He goes as far as providing information about country-differences in terms of sleeping habits, while exploring collateral health damage of not getting quality sleep.

Going a step further, the author also takes us through the importance of sleep at different stages of life. He focuses on our human needs for sleep from the time as infants through adolescence, adulthood and during old age. With his scientific precision, he examines the different factors affecting the quality of sleep in each of these life phases. In one particular section of the book, he ponders over the role of hormones in our sleep and wakefulness. As a bonus, he details how our fellow animals sleep – and about their dreams. He goes as far as describing how some birds safely sleep in trees.

Finally, at the end of the book, Mendelson gives details of solutions, based on medications and lifestyle approaches, to improve our sleep, including details on how sleep medicines work. Compared to various other books on sleep, this work is thankfully thin, yet jam-packed with thick knowledge. The illustrations and splendid design make it more memorable, though there is an occasional overload of insider information on sleep, which can easily be ignored.

Sometimes it’s good to stop overthinking various scientific aspects of sleep and actually go to sleep. As French author Marcel Proust has written; “When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly bodies. Instinctively he consults them when he awakes, and in an instant reads off his own position on the Earth’s surface and the time that has elapsed during his slumbers.”

Vijay Shankar

Vijay is a science journalist, based in Marburg, Germany.

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