"Sleep," J. Allan Hobson

Pros: Enthusiasm; good quality writing; not too inaccessible for an educated layman
Cons: Slightly on the dry side, but not too much
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 12/4/2000

I was lucky enough to take a class on conscious states from J. Allan Hobson, the author of this book, and I’ve been hooked on the subject of biopsychology ever since. It was a 7:30 pm class at Harvard; normally I sleep my way through any class that late in the evening (not through choice). But in his class, I was always on the edge of my seat.

Usually a Bad Sign…

Having gone to MIT briefly (and having a fiancee who graduated from there), I’ve come to see it as a warning sign when the textbooks for a course were written by the professor. Usually it means one of several things. A., the professor is making you read and find all the bugs in his drafts before he actually polishes them up for publication. This is not conducive to easy learning. B., no one else will buy the professor’s books, and he wants to actually make some money off of them, so he makes the class buy them.

Not so in Hobson’s case. I saw several of his own books on the reading list, and I groaned. Then I actually started reading them. These books are lucid and interesting. They tell fascinating stories. This man is not only a brilliant academician, he is a wonderful writer. I loved the books he had us read for class so much (“Sleep” and “The Dreaming Brain”) that I started buying all of his other books as well. I still check every so often to see if he’s come out with something else.

In addition, he’s capable of writing for different levels. “The Dreaming Brain,” for example, is written for a more academic audience, with a fair amount of neurobiology in it. “The Chemistry of Conscious States” is more of a popular book, with more fascinating stories and theories and less neurobiology. “Sleep” falls somewhere in the middle of these. It reads in many ways like it’s meant to be a textbook, and I expect it was. But it’s also more accessible than “The Dreaming Brain.” You’ll find a certain amount of information on neurotransmitters and other such physical things, but it’s all pretty well-explained.

The Wonder and Mystery of States of Consciousness

There’s a reason why Hobson is so well-known in his field, and why I was able to stay awake for a two-hour class at 7:30 in the evening. J. Allan Hobson has a great sense of wonder at the mystery that is the human brain. And that sense of wonder cannot help but come through in his writing. That class was more than a year ago, and I still remember some of the really fascinating details. That’s unusual for me.

When you start studying the brain, everything gets weird. When you study states of consciousness – dreaming, sleep, wakefulness – things get even weirder. Hobson has uncovered so many of the mysteries of the brain, yet has not lost his sense of poetry and wonder at the odd thing that is the field of biopsychology. This book isn’t just loaded with technical diagrams; you’ll find much of the beauty of nature in here as well. Hobson has a true sense of the human in psychology; he doesn’t get lost in the science of things. Yet neither does he lose sight of scientific accuracy.

The Chapters

Chapter 1 covers “sleep and the brain.” It’s some of the basics, here: history, basic sleep biology, the science of studying sleep and dreaming, EEG stages, REM and non-REM sleep, some basic chemistry involved with sleep, and some very colorful diagrams. Chapter 2 is “the rhythms of sleep.” So many things in our bodies run literally like clockwork; you’ll find some interesting things here about biological rhythms and their effects on behavioral states.

Chapter 3 is “sleep and evolution.” How did sleep evolve as it did? What are some of the differences in sleep patterns between different animals? What do we know of the dreams of animals, and their own conscious states? Chapter 4 is “the development of sleep.” How does sleep differ at various stages of our life? How does sleep development differ in animals? Chapter 5 is “behavior in sleep.” Sleep behavior is recorded using time-lapse photography. What has this taught us? What patterns of movement have emerged? What makes us sleep better at night? What does sleep deprivation do to us?

Chapter 6 is “the neurology of sleep.” This is where things get a bit more scientific. More discussion of REM sleep happens here, including the chemical changes involved. Chapter 7 is on “dreaming,” one of Hobson’s favorite subjects. He discusses various theories of dreaming, how it might and might not reflect the workings of the mind, the differences in mental activity between waking and sleep (and various stages of sleep), what dreaming is “really like,” and more. This is one of the most interesting chapters in this book, and goes into one of Hobson’s more interesting topics: the similarity between dreaming and madness, and the idea that one might give us insight into the other.

Chapter 8 is “disordered sleep,” which discusses various sleep problems people may have: problems of too much sleep, too little sleep, and inappropriate sleep behavior. You’ll find out about narcolepsy, hypersomnia, and insomnia (including alcoholic insomnia). This chapter discusses medications for sleep, and “parasomnias,” or sleep disturbances that involve the occurrence during sleep of activity normally only seen during waking hours. Chapter 9 is “the functions of sleep.” Why do we sleep? What does it do for us, physically, mentally and psychologically? Finally there’s a short bibliography, and a very thorough index.

Text Book Basics

It’s clear this is meant to be a textbook on sleep; it includes pretty much all you need in order to understand the state of knowledge about the basics of sleep and dreaming (as of 1995). It doesn’t go deeply into Hobson’s more cutting-edge theories because of this; you’ll have to try one of his other books (perhaps “Dreaming as Delirium”) if you want that. Despite the fact that this book was written in 1995, it still makes a fabulous introduction to the biopsychology of sleep. Many of the details in here are good, basic knowledge that hasn’t yet changed.

This book does require at least some minor scientific background. Nothing like a college degree, but it helps if you at one point or another took and maybe even understood some of a biology class. It’s pretty accessible given that much, however. And it’s certainly worth the time you’ll spend reading it. Hobson is a true genius, a friendly and fascinating man, and a fantastic writer. If I felt I had any aptitude for research, taking his class would have convinced me to go into the field of biopsychology.

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