Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD

why we sleep

After hearing Dr. Matthew Walker interviewed on NPR, I immediately bought it and read it cover to cover – and enjoyed it every bit as much as the interview itself.  Dr. Walker has devoted his career for the past 20+ years to the science of sleep and has amassed a great deal of knowledge on the structure of sleep, the benefits of sleep, the medical and psychological consequences of a lack of sleep, and societal costs of our communal lack of sleep.

What is most impressive about this book is its readability – it is science-based but not full of jargon.  Dr. Walker describes each study that supports each of his claims about sleep, but he does so in a very clear and concise way so that any lay person reading the book can understand how the study group compares to the control group in each experiment and how the conclusions were made.  He also intersperses stories and anecdotes that engage the reader so that it is not just a preachy lecture but rather a mind-opening presentation of scientific ideas based on fascinating data.

His conclusions are many and of utmost importance.  Sleep is critical to our health and our ability to learn and retain memory.  Even getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night can have a detrimental effect on our health, increasing our risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and infections.  It can have an affect on our memory and ability to learn – particularly in adolescents, whose school start times are early in the mornings (which doesn’t jive with their later circadian rhythms).  It can also increase risk of depression and anxiety – no wonder there is so much more of it now than there ever was before!

What causes us to sleep less?  We have electric lights that keep us awake longer into the evening/night.  We work earlier in the morning and then later into the night and then have activities and entertainment later into the evening/night.  We have electronic devices which have blue light/back lighting that send messages to our brains that inhibit melatonin that tells our brains that it is still daytime, so our brains don’t think it’s time to go to sleep yet.  All these contribute to later bedtimes.

So what to do?

I’ll suggest you read this book to find out.  There are great suggestions about sleep hygiene, treatment for insomnia (against medication, but supporting CBT), important lifestyle suggestions and some major public health recommendations.  The one suggestion emphasized the most?  To maintain a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week (including the weekend)!

 

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Choke by Sian Beilock

choke

Why would an accomplished, experienced athlete competing for a spot in the Olympics suddenly flub an event?  Why would an A student who has aced all the practice SAT tests get a mediocre score when it really mattered?  That is, why do people choke?  This is what Dr. Beilock examines in the course of this fascinating summary of psychological research done by herself and others on this subject.

The book reviews what is happening when a person “chokes” both behaviorally and neurologically.  It appears that overthinking a situation can actually interfere with the automatic responses that training leads the body to perfect.  Once your attention is drawn to the specific mechanics of a behavior (kicking a soccer ball, playing a piano concerto), what would be done automatically very smoothly is now pulled apart and diverted by the brain’s other areas becoming involved.  Gradually, the book builds into suggesting what can be done to offset the possible risks of choking or remedies for people who have choked and need to get back onto a path of success.  Not surprisingly, these can include focusing on the goal, meditation, writing down one’s anxieties and worries just before a performance/test, and practicing (although this is a gross over-simplification of her findings).

What makes this book readable is the inclusion of many anecdotes.  Dr. Beilock uses both famous legends from sports history and stories from her own personal experiences from people she’s met through her work to enhance the narrative of the book.  This both engages and clarifies and makes the reading fun.  I found the psychological experiments remarkable and often surprising as well.

And for those of you who might be going on interviews sometime soon – well, there are tips for you, too.  And they are really not what you would expect!

A very interesting read for anyone interested in psychology or sports or really being successful when it counts!

 

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

becoming nicole

This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that is told with a clinical detachment that is utterly unfortunate.

Nicole, who begins her life as Wyatt, an identical twin to brother Jonas, feels from day one that she is a girl.  Already identifying with female characters in movies they’d watch, she, before even turning 3 years old, told her father that she “hated her penis.”  She consistently yearned to wear girls’ clothing and to play with girls’ toys and fortunately for her, her mother, Kelly, was sensitive to her yearnings and did what she could to support her.  Wayne, her father, had a much harder time accepting this side of her and while he loved her, he took many years to mourn the loss of the second son he thought he had.  Finally, though, he did come around and rallied to her support and both parents fought for her legal right to use the girls’ bathroom in her school (although it did not save her from being horribly bullied by a boy in her school throughout middle school, egged on by his nasty grandfather).   Nicole and her family bravely fought to set legal precedents to protect future trans children from prejudicial and ridiculous harassment because of gender identity, at least in certain states.  Hopefully, they will lead others to continue the fight for equality for these people who only want the freedom to be who they are inside.

The only benefit of the “clinical” aspect of the writing is that there are segments of the book devoted to the scientific evidence for brain differences in transgender individuals.  I think that in addition to being extremely interesting from a clinical point of view, it also fuels the argument that these people are not going through “phases,” nor are they “seeking attention” as they are often erroneously accused of doing.  It gives more objective data for those who cannot just support people for who they believe they are – rather it gives medical justification for those who require this.

On the other hand, it is a shame that the writing could not be as beautiful and as engaging as the story itself was.  There was certainly the material there to work with.  The characters were certainly heroic and beautiful, the setting was pure Americana, and the story was definitely dramatic, culminating with a huge and wonderful courtroom win.  The only tragedy was that the telling of this young woman’s triumph was so terribly dry.

I hope that Nicole and her family know how much we all admire their bravery and hope that she and they do not have to fight any further for her to be accepted for who she is.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

option b

So as you can see by this blog, I am not a huge reader of self-help books.  Not because I am not in need of any help (!), but there are just too many other books that I’d rather read.  This one, however, captured my attention.  Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, experienced the tragic, sudden death of her husband, to whom she’d only been married for 10 years.  In trying to cope, she speaks with her psychologist friend, Adam Grant, who suggests that since she can’t have her husband back (Option A), she has to just kick the s–t out of Option B.  And there is the birth of this book and her finding her way out of her despair and learning the basic building blocks of resilience.

I think there are many useful and inspiring lessons here.  I love her 3 P’s, most of all.  She teaches that when we have a crisis, our first inclination is to assign it the 3 P’s:  Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence.  That is, everything is personal – ie. it’s our fault.  We might have been able to prevent the catastrophe that has occurred, even when rational thought would have us know that this isn’t true.  That the issue is pervasive – that everything is terrible and bad and that this will affect everything.  Most of the time, this, again, is not true.  And that the catastrophic event will have effects that will last forever.  Of course, if you are dealing with the death of a loved one, that is permanent; nevertheless, the affect of this on your life will evolve over time and your life goes on even if that of the loved one does not.  These are probably much easier to read about than incorporate into one’s life, but certainly they are important concepts and seemed to have been extraordinarily comforting to her as she was going through her crisis.

I found that the vignettes and stories that Sandberg uses to illustrate points are also useful to drive home her points.  She uses others’ stories as well as her own to generalize the concepts that she discusses, so that it is not all about her.  But she also bravely reveals a lot of herself in this book as well.  I am hoping it was somewhat cathartic for her to write about her experience – I’m sure it was extremely painful as well.

I think since life throwing curveballs is a universal experience, this book can universally be appreciated and utilized.  We can all learn how to catch those curveballs more gracefully and more resiliently!

Life’s Work by Dr. Willie Parker

life's work

This is a modest but monumental work by one of my newest heroes, Dr. Willie Parker.  Dr. Parker was born and raised in the South, by his single, very poor black mother who instilled in him a strong value system, prioritizing family, love and God above all else.  He managed to find additional role models and mentors who encouraged him to climb to heights even he never imagined he’d achieve, cultivating his thirst for understanding science, even in the face of his religious fervor.  He found his calling in the field of medicine and further in the speciality of OB/GYN and practiced in many areas of the country, ultimately ending up in a beautiful area of Hawaii.  While he did find himself advocating for women in some areas, his religious convictions still held him back from performing abortions.  He was not against referring his patients to others to perform them, but he himself felt he could not do them.

Then he suddenly found the way to reconciling this within himself.  He suddenly recognized that, just as the Good Samaritan in the Bible helped the injured traveler out of concern about what would happen to the traveler (ignoring what would happen to himself), that he, Dr. Parker, should also be concerned with what would happen to his patients if he did not do abortions and not what would happen to him (or how he would be judged).  Taking this further, Dr. Parker saw in this a moral, – no a religious! – imperative to carry out his patients’ wishes, whether they be to carry a pregnancy to term or to terminate that pregnancy.  Furthermore, denying patients the choice of what to do with their bodies, denying them access to safe, healthy choices, denying them the right to choose to continue their educations or their jobs or whatever they needed to do without interruption to have a baby – he realized, went against everything his religion and God stood for.  Really, the “anti’s” as he calls them, had it backwards.

He is extremely articulate about a lot of the arguments that the anti’s give about why abortion might be perceived as being wrong – and they’re all mostly devious.  They are mostly about controlling women, and usually about controlling women of color and/or who are poor.  Women, and particularly women in the south and the midwest, now have such minimal access to safe, healthy abortions,  and it is being chipped away –  mostly by white men – day after day after day.  It is merely a power play.

Dr. Parker is one of those rare brave souls who do perform abortions in the south, making safe, healthy procedures available to those who need them.  Thank God for Dr. Parker.

In sum, here is a gorgeously articulated argument for all of you who feel that just because you are religious, you cannot support abortion.  On the contrary, if you are religious – in this light, you are morally obligated to honor the choice and the freedom of the already living, as Dr. Parker does.

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

hillbilly elegy

This memoir from JD Vance is an eye-opening, articulate depiction of the “hillbilly” culture of the Appalachian region.  As Vance shares with the reader about his upbringing – bouncing between Kentucky and Ohio – he opens our hearts to the plight of the poor, often uneducated, white population in this region.  As we learn about his experience with his traumatized and drug-addicted mom and his angry, foul-mouthed, sometimes violent, but unendingly loving and devoted grandparents, we see how entrenched the culture is and how difficult it is to dream in this world.  Fortunately, for him, he was able to find love and support enough to find his way to success – but his journey was complicated and chaotic and he never forgot from where he came.

The honesty and self-reflection with which this story is told brings the reader right into the author’s life.  We are right there with him when his mother takes him on a death-defying car ride.  We are right there when his older sister cares for him as a devoted mother would.  The love and appreciation that he feels for his grandparents who were his constants in a very tumultuous childhood is palpable.  And we can understand when he reflects on how to improve the lot of his fellow hillbilly peers and come up short.  The poverty, the distrust, and the violence that pervades this culture are so entrenched that it feels impossible to overcome.

I think this is an important book for people who are not from the South to read.  It really provides an understanding of a whole sub-culture of people that comprise  part of the fabric of our United States.

A very, very worthwhile read!

 

Lasting Impact by Kostya Kennedy

51gam-ej-bl

So the bottom line, here, is that my friend, Kostya Kennedy must be a good writer to get me to read – and actually enjoy! – a book about football.  While I love some sports, football is not one of them and being a pediatrician experienced in treating concussions, I am really not a fan.  But in this non-fiction account of Kostya’s shadowing the New Rochelle High School football team for their 2014 season, Kostya manages to impress upon even me (a true cynic) why many tolerate the risk for the game.

In the course of the season, Lou DiRienzo, the NRHS football coach takes on the role of coach, teacher, mentor, father-figure, even therapist to many of the boys and he leads them with a kindness and honesty and integrity that earns their trust and respect.  Right from their intensive camp experience at the start of the season, the boys bond and their lives are knitted together as a family.  The team becomes an anchor for those with family issues and a sort of home base for all.  Even at the advent of the Ray Rice scandal, Coach D reiterates that no matter what kind of trouble the boys ever get themselves into, the NRHS football family will always have their back.  And even though the players are injured one after another, there is still an undying devotion to the game.  So even though I am one of those mean mothers who won’t let my son play football, I do see, through the reading of this evenly researched account, its allure.

On the other hand, the negative side is presented quite clearly, too.  The statistics about sudden death from the game, about the potential long- lasting cognitive and emotional deficits, not to mention the broken bones and orthopedic surgeries, are exposed.    This feels to me like a high price to pay for something that another team experience might lend itself to.Still, what is conveyed here is that football, maybe because of its physicality, achieves gains for its players that transcend the immediate physical injuries.

So for all of you football fans, this one’s for you; however, even if you’re just human, you will feel the warmth and compassion of the writer toward the sport and the young people playing it.