Richard Wiseman on sleep deprivation and dreams

Two-thirds of us are sleep-deprived, but Richard Wiseman has the answer; no gadgets before bed, more naps, and learning to harness the extraordinary power of dreams
Psychologist Richard Wiseman  he has explored the new science of sleep and dreaming. Picture: Phil WilkinsonPsychologist Richard Wiseman  he has explored the new science of sleep and dreaming. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Psychologist Richard Wiseman he has explored the new science of sleep and dreaming. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

How did you sleep last night? Comfortably, I hope. How long? Eight hours? More? Or less? If it was the latter then you should know that you are not alone. Far from it. In fact, that’s what millions of us are putting up with since research shows that two-thirds of us are sleep-deprived. And this isn’t just an inconvenience, making us foggy and caffeine-dependent. Lack of sleep brings with it a host of problems – an increased risk of heart attacks, cancer, diabetes and an increased risk of weight gain.

You might well wonder just why so many of us are so bad at sleeping? And since the humble snooze can protect our physical and emotional health, can make us feel energetic and confident and creative, why the majority of us consistently don’t get enough sleep?

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Worse, many of us actively resent having to sleep – it’s a waste of time, a squandering of a third of each day. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be like Barack Obama, or Madonna, and thrive on five hours’ shut-eye a night?

Not according to Professor Richard Wiseman.

Wiseman is the UK’s only Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology and, having already written on luck, deception and persuasion and the paranormal among other subjects, he’s turned his attention to sleep.

Bounding into Browns, Wiseman doesn’t look like a man who has trouble sleeping. Rather he’s one of those people who has a buzz of energy about him, as though everything in the world fascinates him and there’s always an idea or ten cooking away in his brain. But it was a bit of night trouble that kicked off Wiseman’s latest research project.

A few years ago, he began to suffer from night terrors. In the middle of the night, he’d suddenly sit upright, look across his bedroom and see what he was convinced was the devil. “Had I been a believer in the paranormal [another of Wiseman’s research interests, he most definitely isn’t] it would be really easy to think that was a genuine thing out there,” he says. “There is no way I’d doubt that there was something there.”

Apparition over, Wiseman would promptly fall straight back to sleep, leaving his partner, Caroline, groggy from being wakened from deep sleep and troubled by what she’d witnessed.

For Wiseman, some advice from highly regarded sleep expert Dr Chris Idzikowski, whose sleep lab is also in Edinburgh where Wiseman lives, put an end to the nocturnal disturbances. The combination of a hot room and a bit of anxiety linked to a high workload were deemed the causes, so cooling down his bedroom and calming down his work was the remedy.

The night terrors still happen occasionally, but now Wiseman understands why they happen and how to limit them and that process of discovery is what led to his new book, Night School: Wake Up to the Power of Sleep.

In it, Wiseman not only explains the science of sleep, but highlights the power of our sleeping minds, suggesting that not only can each of us learn to improve our sleep but we might also be able to use our dreams to inform our waking lives. He’s on a one man mission to get us to our beds and going on past form, if anyone can do it, it’s him.

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Wiseman started his professional life as a magician, becoming one of the youngest ever members of the Magic Circle. He is currently one of only 300 members of the Inner Magic Circle.

When he went to university (University College London) he studied psychology. He went on to do his doctorate at Edinburgh University. Appointed to his current position in 2002 he now leads a research unit based at Hertfordshire University.

What’s more unusual about Wiseman, though, is the fact that as well as being a respected academic with work published in the world’s leading academic journals, he is also a bit of an internet sensation.

Wiseman’s psychology-based YouTube videos are spectacularly successful, his videos have received more than 200 million views. He is the most followed British psychologist on Twitter and has created mass participation experiments that have involved more than two million people.

When there’s discussion about how science can be brought to the masses, Wiseman is the man who’s cracked it.

His books are translated into more than 30 languages, his talks sell out, as do his festival shows. And although the topics to which he lends his considerable brain power are varied, there’s a theme through them all – they are simultaneously the antithesis of platitude-permeated, utterly unscientific self-help, while being totally focused on the process of what he refers to as “self-development”.

And, as it turns out, in this era of 24-hour media and ever-present smartphones and tablets, there is no area of our lives where Wiseman’s populist but evidence-based approach is needed more than the thorny issue of our nocturnal habits.

More than 28 million people regularly get less sleep than seven hours. In 2010, doctors wrote more than 15 million prescriptions for sleeping tablets.

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We spend less time sleeping than ever before. Worse than that, our new obsessions actively mitigate against a good night’s kip. If we’re not planted in front of the TV right up until bedtime, according to a new YouGov poll, 78 per cent of us are using electronic gadgets (this rises to 91 per cent among those aged 18-24), subjecting ourselves to blue light which suppresses the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.

The unavoidable question is this: how come, since sleep is vital for our health, we seem so utterly unable to do what is required to get it right?

“As a psychologist, I knew about sleep,” says Wiseman, “but it interested me that most of the research about it wasn’t out there in the public domain. If you’ve got a sleep problem you can go and find a book but, for most people, they don’t know about it.”

At the talks Wiseman has been giving, explaining not only how sleep works, but how we can improve our night-time habits, audiences have been, he says, “stunned”.

Scientists have been seriously interested in sleep since at least the 1950s. In the last year or so, a plethora of brain-based studies have been adding more detail to what happens when we turn out the lights.

What definitely doesn’t occur is that our brain switches off. Instead our brains stay as active as they are during the day as we move through sleep cycles of 90 minutes duration that take us from light sleep to deep sleep to dreaming and then back to light sleep again. This means, if we don’t sleep enough we are depriving ourselves of crucial time to rest, repair and revitalise.

“It’s now two-thirds of the population who are having less than seven hours of sleep a night, which we’d count as sleep deprived,” says Wiseman. “That’s up 30 per cent on last year.”

The other key stat from the survey concerns the use of smartphones, computers and tablets which is also up round about 25 per cent.

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“My sense is that it’s getting worse with 24-hour media, the internet is available all the time, there are always things to do. When people go camping and they go to a place with no electric light and no alarm clock they realise how much sleep they should get naturally because they haven’t got all those other distractions.”

Lack of sleep, even the loss of as little as an hour a night, has an adverse impact on our health and our psychological well being.

“It affects everything,” Wiseman says. “Even losing an hour, going from eight to seven, each night for most people is disastrous in the short term in terms of the psychology of it. You feel less focused and vigilant, more accident prone, less creative.

“Long term, which is five to ten years, the chances of you dying are doubled. Heart disease, cancer, blood pressure going up, obesity going up, everything is linked straight in.”

For Wiseman, understanding the role sleep plays in keeping us happy and healthy is vital. And it’s not all that complicated. “There’s not a drug mentioned in the book,” he says.

“It just doesn’t go there. In part that’s because it’s not my area and second when you look at the downside of sleeping tablets they’re really quite severe, you really don’t want to be on them for long periods of time.

“So everything in the book is pretty straight forward, I’m talking about things you can do quickly and effectively and that don’t cost any money. The key message is that those things really matter.”

He means learning how sleep patterns work – since our sleep cycle is 90 minutes long, to wake up feeling the most refreshed count back in blocks of 90 minutes from when you need to wake up to find your optimal bed time.

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He also means learning the secrets of “super-sleepers”, those who can fall asleep when they want and wake up feeling totally refreshed. He wants us all to learn the power of napping (he enjoys one 40-minute nap a day), arguing that a snooze of even a few minutes can boost both our memory and creativity.

But perhaps there is no better illustration of the scope of Wiseman’s sleep ambition than his work on dreams.

Two years ago at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, he launched an iPhone app, Dream:ON.

Similar to an alarm clock app, you tell it what time you want to wake up, set the volume and alarm tone, but then you are asked to choose a soundscape – there are more than 40 to choose from ranging from ocean sounds, to peaceful gardens to “a trip to Tokyo”.

The idea is to examine how sounds influence dreams. Dream:ON has been downloaded more than half a million times. Users are encouraged to share their dreams, creating a bank of more than 13 million dream reports.

So, can dreams be used to positively influence our waking lives? “We looked at that data a few months ago and discovered the very lovely effect that playing a quiet, relaxing nature-based sound gives people more positive dreams than a placebo where they thought they were getting sounds but weren’t,” says Wiseman.

He explains that what is revolutionary about Dream:ON is that it has, for the first time, enabled a dream study to be accessible outside of a sleep lab since all you need to participate is a smartphone.

This means that if the results are positive and if Wiseman shows that listening to certain sounds can influence our dreams which in turn lead to us waking in a better mood, more refreshed and revived, there’s no limit to who can use it other than owning a smartphone. “We don’t know if it’ll make people feel better in the morning,” he says.

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“We don’t know if it will help with depression but it’s quite an ambitious project. The idea of trying to change the emotional tone of a dream, making it more positive in order that it would kick off a more effective therapeutic process. If that were true it’s huge.”

Wiseman smiles. Bringing psychology to the masses is, for him, one of the best parts of his job. And if his thinking about sleep is headed in the right direction then we might all be about to sleep much easier in our beds.

1 If you want to feel sleepy when you head to bed wear glasses with amber-tinted lenses to block out the blue light that stimulates the brain.

2 If you want to wake refreshed, count back in 90-minute blocks to discover the best time to go to bed.

3 If you want to fall asleep quickly either think of a very pleasant scenario or try to stay awake, it’s one of the best ways to nod off.

4 If you lie in bed feeling worried make a list of all the things you’ve got to do. If it’s something specific write that down and allow it to float through your mind rather than being a focus.

5 If you wake up don’t lie awake in bed for more than 20 minutes without getting up and doing something non-stimulating such as a jigsaw.

6 If you want to learn in your sleep don’t cram late into the night, instead study in the day, remind yourself of the key points before bed and get lots of sleep. Sleep glues memories into your mind.

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7 If you want to boost your brain power during the day taking a catnap will help you to become more alert, creative and productive. Napping boosts memory.

8 If experiencing a recurring nightmare spend some time during the day describing your nightmare and imagining an improved ending. Studies show this stops nightmares 90 per cent of the time.

9 If you want an insight into your worries, describe a striking dream in detail, look for ways in which it applies to your life and then use this as the basis for change.

10 If you want to achieve a goal, imagine doing whatever you need to do to achieve it just before you go to sleep. As you drift off, tell yourself that you want these images to crop up in your dreams.

Night School: Wake Up to the Power of Sleep by Richard Wiseman is published by Macmillan, £20. 
Richard Wiseman’s Night School is on Thursday, 17 April at Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival (