While not an overtly “systems thinking” theme, I want to highlight this book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams for a few reasons.

First, the power of sleep is dramatically overlooked; what I’m calling “an overlooked gift” in the title of this blog. Nowhere have I seen this made more clear than in this book by Matthew Walker, PhD (2017). Many years ago my meditation teacher noted, in essence, “Meditation is definitely not a replacement for sleep. You need sleep…” However, it wasn’t until reading this book that I really understood how true that statement was.

Second, it is a pleasure to read a book by someone that is very well researched (and thoroughly footnoted), while still being very readable, and most of all, passionately written. I appreciate the first person perspective, and the sort of thinking-out-loud style. (The only other book that comes to mind as both heavily scientific and passionate at the same time Carl Safina’s heartrending book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.)

Finally, there is the systems aspect. I tend to put on my systems hat when something is being pointed to that underlies whole areas of life, and often in unexpected ways, to a seemingly outsized degree. Sleep and the importance of quality sleep is a perfect example of this phenomena.

Early on the author states the following:

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. Unfortunately, the real evidence that makes clear all of the dangers that befall individuals and societies when sleep becomes short have not been clearly telegraphed to the public. It is perhaps the most glaring omission in the contemporary health conversation. (pg 8)

“All-nighters” are profiled as a hideous injustice to yourself and society; a missed sleep opportunity that can never truly be recovered (pg 32 – 34). He addresses all kinds of sleep disorders and supplies learning from decades of research, urging the reader with any issues with sleep quality to take this one main learning home: get to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day. (Getting up at the same time being the only reason to use an alarm clock, which is otherwise frowned upon for physiological/mental health reasons.)

Walker goes into great detail on the sleep cycle, including states of sleep and the quality of brainwaves throughout those states (and implications for Alzheimer’s disease), how various life experience and substances can undercut the quality of those brainwaves without you knowing what’s happening, and hopes for therapeutic gadgets to artificially induce deeper sleep with potentially dramatic health-enhancing outcomes. Again and again throughout the book he explains how and why study after study has shown that a night of quality sleep in between tests of recall demonstrate an inescapably consistent link between sleep and the ability to remember stuff, as well as the ability to come up with creative solutions to problems.

Related to the point on learning, he makes a heartfelt plea toward the later part of the book to move school start times later in the morning, citing very clear links between later school start times and learning outcomes. He cites a school that changed their start time: “In the year before this time change, the average verbal SAT scores of the top-performing students was a very respectable 605. The following year, after switching to an 8:30 a.m. start time, that score rose to an average 761 for the same top-tier bracket of students” (pg 311). Unfortunately, low-income families often rely on school buses to a greater extent than higher income families, which means their children have to rise earlier to catch early school buses as opposed to being whisked off to school in the family car: “As a result, those already disadvantaged children become even more so because they routinely obtain less sleep than children from more affluent families” (pg 312).

The problems with LED lights, how sleep deprivation is more deadly than even alcohol-impaired driving, the power of dreams to provide “overnight therapy,” the scourge of sleep-deprived doctors and other medical staff, and even the effectiveness of vaccines in well-slept versus under-slept individuals, you can find almost anything about sleep in this book.

Like so many other authors and researchers who beg, nearly plead with the larger world to heed their call, I found myself wanting to say to this author, “But you don’t understand. If the purpose of the school system was optimally educating children, of course school start times would be later.” Or, “If the purpose of the medical establishment was optimal care of patients, then for sure doctors would be required to get much better sleep.” But as discussed in other blogs (and in the forthcoming book, Dear Marin), unfortunately this is not the case.

I hope you take the time to read this important book. And then consider following it up with the equally important The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard. And then, start a Dark Sky chapter in your town, and cite Why We Sleep in your local appeals. Talk about the “purpose” of your community, and the larger society. Is it maximizing profit for a small group of people? If so, then urge everyone to just keep doing what they are doing. But if the larger purpose is something more like human and ecological well-being, then these books help us to understand that dramatic shifts in business-as-usual are required.