Book review: Night School by Richard Wiseman

Psychologist Richard Wiseman. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Psychologist Richard Wiseman. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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RICHARD Wiseman’s analysis of our sleeping habits will certainly not make you doze off while you read it, but it will almost certainly tell you a lot of things about sleep that you didn’t know – like the fact that nightmares might actually be good for us, or that a good night’s sleep might be the best way of dealing with the problems we fret about while awake.

Night School

by Richard Wiseman

Macmillan, 291pp, £20

Sleep is vital to our well-being, says Wiseman, a professor of psychology as well as a professional magician, who rejects the suggestion that we can get by on anything less than eight hours a night. We all need to spend about one third of our lives asleep, he insists, and one quarter of that will consist of dreaming.

He plans to help us “get the most out of the night” by conducting his Night School, which comes complete with questionnaires about our sleeping habits and things to do to improve the experience.

A good night’s sleep will, he promises, help us lose weight, stop smoking, be more creative and productive. Lack of sleep, by contrast, can be a major factor in causing depression, schizophrenia and hyperactivity. Most children are over-tired and one third of adults are under-slept. This can be blamed on the invention of electricity. Before that, adults went to bed earlier because it was hard to see in the evening.

Lack of sleep makes us less efficient at work. Research shows that tired employees are more likely to waste time surfing the internet for no reason, and such inefficiencies are reckoned to cost businesses more than of $150 billion each year. Similarly, students who stay up late before an exam to revise would be better going to bed, though it is also important to remember that teenagers have different sleeping needs, and what might look like stayabed laziness can often be part of the learning process. Get that wrong and teenagers could well be too tired to do their best in exams.

Wiseman is intrigued by dreams, – which, he insists, “have the power to improve your life and change the world”. Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott both trained themselves to remember dreams as the basis for their stories: Stevenson believed he lost at least one good tale because his wife woke him up. Wiseman acknowledges that any certainties about dreams are hard to come by, as volunteers in sleep research projects are, of course, all asleep, but he offers some do-it-yourself experiments to give his readers a sense of what they might be missing out on.

The United Kingdom’s best known sleep clinic is the Edinburgh Sleep Centre where Wiseman himself has conducted research of his own. The amazing fact about dreaming is that “you regain consciousness, open your eyes, and carry on with your life as if nothing strange has happened”.

If you actually want to study your own “lucid dreams”, you have quite a bit of work to do, with preparations including regularly checking the time, lying down to imagine your perfect dreams, having a pen and pad at your bedside and being wakened by an alarm one hour before your usual waking up time. If you are still enthralled by dreaming, there is an iPhone app, Dream:On, designed to help create the perfect dream. (Incidentally, there is no evidence that eating cheese affects dreams.)

There are no quick fixes, but we can all become what Wiseman calls “super sleepers”. Sleep needs darkness, so bedroom and bathroom lights should be muted. Phones, computers and televisions should be switched off well ahead of bedtime. We should go to bed when we are mentally rather than physically tired. If we have things on our minds, we should write a list of them before trying to sleep. Reassuring for the older age group is that taking a daytime nap enhances the brain’s function and is not simply laziness.


Richard Wiseman on sleep deprivation and dreams

Despite its whimsical approach to the serious business of sleeping, Night School offers useful advice for an activity important to us all.