How psychology can improve your sleep life [YANSS 24]

William Dement, former dean of sleep studies at Stanford, a man with 50 years of research behind him, once told a reporter for National Geographic – “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.”

You are Not So Smart is hosted by David McRaney, a journalist and self-described psychology nerd. In each episode, David explores cognitive biases and delusions, and is often joined by a guest expert.

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It’s a good time for science-y things. Over the last few years, at least in the USA, the media empires and content hamlets have discovered that people like reading articles and watching videos about the things scientists are doing. In an age skeptical of agendas, unsure about where best to get a daily ration of awe and wonder, right now pop-science is a trusted source.

This has upset some very educated people who know a lot more about how science really works than the average consumer of popular media. I continue to read a variety of curmudgeonly opinions from public thinkers on things like Cosmos, Radiolab, Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell, I Fucking Love Science, and the tidal wave of YouTube channels devoted to the kind of programming that used to be the staple of The Discovery Channel. I disagree with the curmudgeons who prefer less gloss and more bar graphs (I think we can enjoy both), but that’s not where I’m headed here. Allow me to drop a quote to escape this tangent and move on.

“The average newspaper boy in Pittsburgh knows more about the universe than did Galileo, Aristotle, Leonardo, or any of those other guys who were so smart they only needed one name.” – Psychologist Dan Gilbert, from his book Stumbling on Happiness

No, I’m jazzed about this. I’m a cheerleader. And I think this surge of popularity is bolstered by a new intuition. If you have a problem with authority -- religious, political, cultural -- or if you have a restless rebellion always churning in your stomach, science feels like the sledgehammer that can smash all that came before. It even smashes itself.

But… before you get too smug about it, before you go around wagging fingers at people who believe weird things, remember that we only just got started with this way of thinking, and we really don’t know (for sure) a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. The old sciences -- astronomy, physics, chemistry -- yeah, they’ve made plenty of progress into explaining the unknown. The young ones, like psychology, are still busy collecting data, still observing.

Some kinds of ignorance are less unsettling than others. Our lack of knowledge about things like black holes and quantum physics feels appropriate, even comforting. Though we are connected to those ideas by our very atomic makeup, the nescience doesn’t feel intimate unless someone like Richard Feynman explains why you should feel otherwise. There are other things, however, about which we know very little that do feel intimate. One of these things is the focus of this episode of the YANSS podcast -- sleep. The phenomenon of sleep is just as unknown and mysterious and doggedly pursued by learned men and women as the invisible discothèques of the atomic world. Sleep is still behind a curtain of non-knowledge along with the constellation of phenomena that orbit it: dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, altered states of consciousness, and all the rest. Sleep is a fundamental part of being human, like eyes and ears and food and hugs -- yet we know, in a scientific sense, practically nothing about it.

Consider these two quotes. William Dement, former dean of sleep studies at Stanford, a man with 50 years of research behind him, once told a reporter for National Geographic – “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.” Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi who studies sleep at The University of Wisconsin said at a conference of sleep scientists, “… despite the extraordinary tools we now have to investigate it, we still don’t know what it is for. In fact, we don’t know if it is for anything really.”

nightschoolNight School: Wake up to the Power of Sleep, by Richard Wiseman, is available from Amazon.
Even though we have yet to cross an ocean of non-knowledge on this topic, the field of psychology has learned enough about how to increase the observable benefits of sleeping and dreaming to fill a book, and Richard Wiseman wrote that book. To learn more, we interview Wiseman who holds Britain’s Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology. Wiseman, a former magician, is the author of several books on psychology, is very active on YouTube, and a consultant for both MythBusters and Derren Brown. You can learn more about him at his website. His latest book is called Night School.

After the interview, I discuss a news story about how most Americans think they are smarter than most Americans, and another about how people in the UK are wrong about nearly everything.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, You Are Now Less Dumb, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Edward Eades who submitted a recipe for Sally cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

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Published 4:00 am Wed, May 28, 2014

About the Author

David McRaney is a journalist and self-described psychology nerd. He's the author of the books You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb. He has written for several publications, including The Atlantic and Psychology Today. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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