Doze of our lives
A narcoleptic’s book about sleep is the opposite of soporific
Henry Nicholls was 21 when he was diagnosed with narcolepsy and cataplexy, two linked conditions that mean, in the first instance, that he falls asleep suddenly, and in the second that he loses control of his muscles and collapses when he experiences intense emotions (as he discovered while watching Rob Andrew’s injury-time match-winning drop-kick against Australia in the quarter-final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup). As you might expect, these alarming afflictions sent Nicholls on a quest to find out more about how they worked, and also to examine the plethora of other sleep disorders that exist; a 2011 report by the Mental Health Foundation found that nearly a third of Brits suffer from severe sleep deprivation.
Science writer Nicholls’ new book, Sleepyhead: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search
for a Good Night, takes us through his own experiences, while also looking at the innumerable bizarre studies that have taken place to try to get a better sense of how sleep functions, such as sleep science pioneer William C Dement and his team, who found themselves with a colony of Doberman Pinschers with genetically inherited narcolepsy (breeding further generations for study proved difficult as coitus would cause them to pass out with excitement).
The beneficial aspects of Nicholls’ book for the more casually sleep-deprived
— a third of us, remember — are the sections about insomnia and sleep apnea, for which Nicholls offers evidence-based solutions: cognitive behavioural therapy works wonders for insomnia, while in a robbingPeter-to-pay-Paul scenario, snoring can be improved by taking up the didgeridoo.
A small warning: do not make this reviewer’s mistake of reading the terrifying chapter about sleep paralysis — when it’s common to experience the sense of a presence in the room with you at night, gazing at, and sometimes crawling on, your apparently lifeless body
— when you’re about to go to bed yourself. But do read this book if you want to gain a greater understanding, accessibly conveyed, of what happens when your head hits the pillow (or in Nicholls’ case, the kitchen table).
Eyes wide shut: Jacques Tati catches 40 winks in London’s Hyde Park, 1959