Ben Williams with a coffee cup in front of his face

Ben I Williams

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

By Matthew Walker

Part 1: This Thing Called Sleep

If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.”III
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every species studied to date sleeps
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We sleep for a rich litany of functions, plural—an abundant constellation of nighttime benefits that service both our brains and our bodies
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Within the brain, sleep enriches a diversity of functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices
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Instead, we are now forced to wonder whether there are any biological functions that do not benefit by a good night’s sleep. So far, the results of thousands of studies insist that no, there aren’t.
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Emerging from this research renaissance is an unequivocal message: sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day—Mother Nature’s best effort yet at contra-death
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The first factor is a signal beamed out from your internal twenty-four-hour clock located deep within your brain. The clock creates a cycling, day-night rhythm that makes you feel tired or alert at regular times of night and day, respectively. The second factor is a chemical substance that builds up in your brain and creates a “sleep pressure.” The longer you’ve been awake, the more that chemical sleep pressure accumulates, and consequentially, the sleepier you feel. It is the balance between these two factors that dictates how alert and attentive you are during the day, when you will feel tired and ready for bed at night, and, in part, how well you will sleep.
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daylight isn’t the only signal that the brain can latch on to for the purpose of biological clock resetting, though it is the principal and preferential signal, when present. So long as they are reliably repeating, the brain can also use other external cues, such as food, exercise, temperature fluctuations, and even regularly timed social interaction
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Any signal that the brain uses for the purpose of clock resetting is termed a zeitgeber, from the German “time giver” or “synchronizer.
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Your biological circadian rhythm coordinates a drop in core body temperature as you near typical bedtime (figure 1), reaching its nadir, or low point, about two hours after sleep onset. However, this temperature rhythm is not dependent upon whether you are actually asleep. If I were to keep you awake all night, your core body temperature would still show the same pattern
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Temperature is just one of many twenty-four-hour rhythms that the suprachiasmatic nucleus governs
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However, night owls are not owls by choice. They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hardwiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate
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Melatonin simply provides the official instruction to commence the event of sleep, but does not participate in the sleep race itself.
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For every day you are in a different time zone, your suprachiasmatic nucleus can only readjust by about one hour. It therefore took me about eight days to readjust to London time after having been in San Francisco, since London is eight hours ahead of San Francisco
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You may have noticed that it feels harder to acclimate to a new time zone when traveling eastward than when flying westward. There are two reasons for this. First, the eastward direction requires that you fall asleep earlier than you would normally, which is a tall biological order for the mind to simply will into action
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our natural circadian rhythm is innately longer than one day—about twenty-four hours and fifteen minutes
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Scientists have studied airplane cabin crews who frequently fly on long-haul routes and have little chance to recover. Two alarming results have emerged. First, parts of their brains—specifically those related to learning and memory—had physically shrunk, suggesting the destruction of brain cells caused by the biological stress of time-zone travel. Second, their short-term memory was significantly impaired
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Your twenty-four-hour circadian rhythm is the first of the two factors determining wake and sleep. The second is sleep pressure. At this very moment, a chemical called adenosine is building up in your brain. It will continue to increase in concentration with every waking minute that elapses.
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The longer you are awake, the more adenosine will accumulate. Think of adenosine as a chemical barometer that continuously registers the amount of elapsed time since you woke up this morning.
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As a result of that chemical sleep pressure, when adenosine concentrations peak, an irresistible urge for slumber will take hold.VII It happens to most people after twelve to sixteen hours of being awake.
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caffeine is the most widely used (and abused) psychoactive stimulant in the world.
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Caffeine has an average half-life of five to seven hours
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One cup of decaf usually contains 15 to 30 percent of the dose of a regular cup of coffee, which is far from caffeine-free. Should you drink three to four cups of decaf in the evening, it is just as damaging to your sleep as one regular cup of coffee.
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Based in large part on genetics,IX some people have a more efficient version of the enzyme that degrades caffeine, allowing the liver to rapidly clear it from the bloodstream.
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the older we are, the longer it takes our brain and body to remove caffeine, and thus the more sensitive we become in later life to caffeine’s sleep-disrupting influence.
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For the entire time that caffeine is in your system, the sleepiness chemical it blocks (adenosine) nevertheless continues to build up. Your brain is not aware of this rising tide of sleep-encouraging adenosine, however, because the wall of caffeine you’ve created is holding it back from your perception. But once your liver dismantles that barricade of caffeine, you feel a vicious backlash
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you may have assumed that the two governing forces that regulate your sleep—the twenty-four-hour circadian rhythm of the suprachiasmatic nucleus and the sleep-pressure signal of adenosine—communicate with each other so as to unite their influences. In actual fact, they don’t. They are two distinct and separate systems that are ignorant of each other. They are not coupled; though, they are usually aligned.
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If you feel as though you could fall asleep easily midmorning, you are very likely not getting enough sleep, or the quality of your sleep is insufficient
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After approximately eight hours of healthy sleep in an adult, the adenosine purge is complete.
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While a clinical sleep assessment is needed to thoroughly address this issue, an easy rule of thumb is to answer two simple questions. First, after waking up in the morning, could you fall back asleep at ten or eleven a.m.? If the answer is “yes,” you are likely not getting sufficient sleep quantity and/or quality. Second, can you function optimally without caffeine before noon? If the answer is “no,” then you are most likely self-medicating your state of chronic sleep deprivation.
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In general, these un-refreshed feelings that compel a person to fall back asleep midmorning, or require the boosting of alertness with caffeine, are usually due to individuals not giving themselves adequate sleep opportunity time—at least eight or nine hours in bed
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Other questions that can draw out signs of insufficient sleep are: If you didn’t set an alarm clock, would you sleep past that time? (If so, you need more sleep than you are giving yourself.) Do you find yourself at your computer screen reading and then rereading (and perhaps rereading again) the same sentence? (This is often a sign of a fatigued, under-slept brain.) Do you sometimes forget what color the last few traffic lights were while driving? (Simple distraction is often the cause, but a lack of sleep is very much another culprit.)
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Even sunlight coming through thick cloud on a rainy day is powerful enough to help reset our biological clocks.
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There are other factors that contribute to caffeine sensitivity, such as age, other medications currently being taken, and the quantity and quality of prior sleep. A. Yang, A. A. Palmer, and H. de Wit, “Genetics of caffeine consumption and responses to caffeine,” Psychopharmacology 311, no. 3 (2010): 245–57,
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The principal liver enzyme that metabolizes caffeine is called cytochrome P450 1A2.
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R. Noever, J. Cronise, and R. A. Relwani, “Using spider-web patterns to determine toxicity,” NASA Tech Briefs 19, no. 4 (1995): 82; and Peter N. Witt and Jerome S. Rovner, Spider Communication: Mechanisms and Ecological Significance (Princeton University Press, 1982).
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XI. (source: D. J. Buysse, “Sleep Health: Can we define it? Does it matter?” SLEEP 37, no. 1 [2014]: 9–17).
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All these signals still flood into the center of your brain, but it is here, in the sensory convergence zone, where that journey ends while you sleep. The signals are blocked by a perceptual barricade set up in a structure called the thalamus (THAL-uh-muhs). A smooth, oval-shaped object just smaller than a lemon, the thalamus is the sensory gate of the brain. The thalamus decides which sensory signals are allowed through its gate, and which are not. Should they gain privileged passage, they are sent up to the cortex at the top of your brain, where they are consciously perceived.
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healthy sleep, the thalamus imposes a sensory blackout in the brain, preventing onward travel of those signals up to the cortex. As a result, you are no longer consciously aware of the information broadcasts being transmitted from your outer sense organs. At this moment, your brain has lost waking contact with the outside world that surrounds you. Said another way, you are now asleep.
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rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage in which humans principally dream.
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During REM sleep, the memories were being replayed far more slowly: at just half or quarter the speed of that measured when the rats were awake and learning the maze. This slow neural recounting of the day’s events is the best evidence we have to date explaining our own protracted experience of time in human REM sleep. This dramatic deceleration of neural time may be the reason we believe our dream life lasts far longer than our alarm clocks otherwise assert.
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using electrodes, arising from three different regions: (1) brainwave activity, (2) eye movement activity, and (3) muscle activity. Collectively, these signals are grouped together under the blanket term “polysomnography” (PSG), meaning a readout (graph) of sleep (somnus) that is made up of multiple signals (poly).
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Aserinsky also observed that these two phases of slumber (sleep with eye movements, sleep with no eye movements) would repeat in a somewhat regular pattern throughout the night, over, and over, and over again.
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Aserinsky realized the profound discovery they had made: humans don’t just sleep, but cycle through two completely different types of sleep. They named these sleep stages based on their defining ocular features: non–rapid eye movement, or NREM, sleep, and rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep.
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NREM sleep received further dissection in the years thereafter, being subdivided into four separate stages, unimaginatively named NREM stages 1 to 4 (we sleep researchers are a creative bunch), increasing in their depth. Stages 3 and 4 are therefore the deepest stages of NREM sleep you experience, with “depth” being defined as the increasing difficulty required to wake an individual out of NREM stages 3 and 4, compared with NREM stages 1 or 2.
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In the years since Ester’s slumber revelation, we have learned that the two stages of sleep—NREM and REM—play out in a recurring, push-pull battle for brain domination across the night. The cerebral war between the two is won and lost every ninety minutes,II ruled first by NREM sleep, followed by the comeback of REM
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The technical name for this graphic is a hypnogram (a sleep graph).
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We have no scientific consensus as to why our sleep (and that of all other mammals and birds) cycles in this repeatable but dramatically asymmetric pattern, though a number of theories exist
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As we will discover in chapter 6, a key function of deep NREM sleep, which predominates early in the night, is to do the work of weeding out and removing unnecessary neural connections. In contrast, the dreaming stage of REM sleep, which prevails later in the night, plays a role in strengthening those connections.
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Let’s say that you go to bed this evening at midnight. But instead of waking up at eight a.m., getting a full eight hours of sleep, you must wake up at six a.m. because of an early-morning meeting or because you are an athlete whose coach demands early-morning practices. What percent of sleep will you lose? The logical answer is 25 percent, since waking up at six a.m. will lop off two hours of sleep from what would otherwise be a normal eight hours. But that’s not entirely true. Since your brain desires most of its REM sleep in the last part of the night, which is to say the late-morning hours, you will lose 60 to 90 percent of all your REM sleep, even though you are losing 25 percent of your total sleep time. It works both ways. If you wake up at eight a.m., but don’t go to bed until two a.m., then you lose a significant amount of deep NREM sleep
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When it comes to sleep, there is no such thing as burning the candle at both ends—or even at one end—and getting away with it.
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Prior to bed, your waking brain activity is frenetic, meaning that the brainwaves are cycling (going up and down) perhaps thirty or forty times per second, similar to a very fast drumbeat. This is termed “fast frequency” brain activity. Moreover, there is no reliable pattern to these brainwaves—that is, the drumbeat is not only fast, but also erratic
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Place your finger between your eyes, just above the bridge of your nose. Now slide it up your forehead about two inches. When you go to bed tonight, this is where most of your deep-sleep brainwaves will be generated: right in the middle of your frontal lobes. It is the epicenter, or hot spot, from which most of your deep, slow-wave sleep emerges.
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almost all of your deep-sleep brainwaves will travel in one direction: from the front of your brain to the back. They are like the sound waves emitted from a speaker, which predominantly travel in one direction, from the speaker outward (it is always louder in front of a speaker than behind it). And like a speaker broadcasting across a vast expanse, the slow waves that you generate tonight will gradually dissipate in strength as they make their journey to the back of the brain, without rebound or return.
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