Doze of our lives

A nar­colep­tic’s book about sleep is the op­po­site of so­porific

Esquire (UK) - - Style - Sleepy­head: Nar­colepsy, Neu­ro­science and the Search for a Good Night by Henry Ni­cholls (Pro­file Books) is pub­lished on 1 March

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

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