Bookshelf: Sleep on It

The Slumbering Masses

By Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer

The author spent most of high school half asleep, the unfortunate result of a midnight bedtime and a predawn wake-up. In college, realizing he was more of a night person, he flipped his schedule completely and worked the graveyard shift at Kinko's. When the burgeoning night owl heard a professor mention that his regular hours were 1 P.M. to 10 P.M., he was sold. "I became a professor because of the schedule," jokes Wolf-Meyer, now an anthropologist at the University of California Santa Cruz. He talked to PT about some of the ideas in his new book, the first cultural history of sleep. —Lauren F. Friedman

Let's start simple. What is sleep?

The standard definition is always relative: It's not wakefulness, it's not a coma, and it's not death. And now they think you can have parts of the brain that are awake while others are asleep. It helps explain sleepwalking, Ambien zombies, and insomnia.

Image: Book Cover: The Slumbering Masses
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People who take large doses of Ambien wake up in the morning, pour coffee, go through their routine—but are actually partially asleep the whole time. That kind of behavior is changing our definition of sleep.

So how do you define "normal" sleep?

We've been sleeping the way we do now for only about 200 years. What we think of as disordered sleep might actually be what we evolved toward—going to sleep for a few hours, waking up, going back to sleep. If you took that pattern into a clinic, though, most doctors would think of it as disordered.

Is there any sleep pattern that would be considered problematic in any culture?

Kleine-Levin syndrome (where people sleep for really, really long periods of time), familial insomnia, and violent arousal in the middle of the night would all be seen as disorders no matter where you are. But many sleeping patterns that are alternative are not necessarily disorderly.

So why do we have such rigid ideas about sleep?

The eight-hour night is something that's happened alongside the industrialization of the workforce. When you're working at home or in a small agricultural setting, the ability to take a nap is much more prevalent.

How has working on this book changed your own sleep habits?

I realized that what I thought of as my own odd sleep pattern was well within the range of normal. I still have insomnia, but now I have no problem with just getting up in the middle of the night for two hours. And whatever guilt I once felt about taking naps has been totally resolved.

Image: Book cover: Happier at Home
Happier at Home

By Gretchen Rubin

The Big Idea

The reigning happiness guru combines scientific studies, literary aphorisms, and personal tips into a new memoir that zeroes in on domestic contentment. Rubin documents her monthly resolutions, from the simple ("Read the manual") to the counter-intuitive ("Abandon my self-control").

Did You Know...?

  • Commercials actually make us enjoy TV more. You can make a good experience more pleasant by interrupting it periodically with something less fun.
  • Almost everyone, regardless of present happiness, believes the future will be better than the past. Research shows up to 95 percent of us subscribe to this "arrival fallacy."
  • The idea that some smells are good and others are bad is learned, not innate. We enjoy flowers and detest skunk spray because we've been raised that way.

In Her Own Words:

"A happy home wasn't a place that I could furnish, but an attitude of mind I must develop." —Jonah Comstock


Image: Book Cover: Critical Decisions
Critical Decisions

By Peter Ubel

The Big Idea Long gone are the days when doctors called the shots and patients just followed course. But should the ill be navigating a deluge of information alone? Ubel proposes a middle ground, where doctors help patients make the choices that are best for them.

Did You Know...?

  • The more options patients are given, the more likely they are to avoid making a treatment decision.
  • Most people can understand a rough comparison between the risks of two procedures but are easily confused by statistical survival rates, especially when different docs present them in different ways.
  • Few doctors realize their jargon is confusing, and patients rarely ask them to clarify for fear of looking stupid.

In His Own Words:

"The patient empowerment movement of the 1970s succeeded in transforming the doctor-patient relationship, but too often it has failed in its ultimate goal of helping patients receive the medical care that best fits their individual preferences." —Colin Weatherby

Book Cover: Wait The Art and Science of Delay
Wait: The Art and Science of Delay

By Frank Partnoy

The Big Idea

Though our high-speed culture embraces snap judgments, we're better off taking our time. The most successful athletes, commanders, and businessmen are "masters of delay" who take as long as possible to analyze a situation.

Did You Know...?

  • Exposure to fast-food logos can speed up our behavior and spoil our ability to enjoy looking at photos or listening to music.
  • The Post-it note was no sudden epiphany—its creators took more than a decade to perfect the adhesive and figure out what to use it for.
  • People who place too much value on immediate happiness and too little on the future are less healthy, deeper in debt, and more likely to divorce.

In His Own Words:

"The longer we can wait, the better. If we have an hour, we should wait 59 minutes before responding. If we have a year, we should wait 364 days. Even if we have just half a second, we should wait as long as we possibly can. Even milli-seconds matter." —Matt Huston

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