Edinburgh Fringe 2014
An entertaining and educational talk from one of the UK’s most personable and amusing psychologists about the importance of sleep.
Entertaining Ideas, the Assembly Room lunchtime talks for what they amusingly refer to in their announcement as “a discerning audience”, today hosted Richard Wiseman, the UK’s only professor of public psychology. Wiseman started his working life as a magician, becoming one of the youngest members of the Magic Circle, before turning his attention to the source of illusions that is psychology.
As he deftly makes a handkerchief disappear and pop back up again, he explains that we all too readily fall for illusions. Our brains, for example, are hard-wired to look for faces and will see one when none exists, which goes a long way towards explaining most ghost “sightings”. We are also capable of being tricked into hearing things that aren’t said, largely through the power of suggestion, which he demonstrates by flashing alternative words to a well-known opera aria onto a screen as a soprano wobbles her way through it. Judging by the chuckles in the room, most of us are indeed taking two plus two and making five.
And all this before we even get to talking about the matter in hand – the lad of nod. We spend a third of our time sleeping. Or we should do. But a recent survey apparently showed that, in 2013, around 40% of the UK was suffering from sleep deprivation, defined as averaging less than seven hours of sleep per night over a six month period. The survey was repeated earlier this year and that number had risen, Wiseman claimed, to a staggering 66% of the population.
As someone with a working knowledge of statistics, I am always sceptical of headline claims not backed with the detailed data. Was the dear Professor guilty of trying to create a headline here, especially had just let slip that we are apt to believe things that fit our natural bias, illustrating this point with an example of an oft quoted study relating life income to attributes displayed by a cohort of four year-olds that never took place, but was relied on unquestioningly for years by a large number of academics as it fitted their preconceptions?
But whether the numbers are right or wrong, Wiseman’s work shows that we could be heading towards a potential health problem by failing to give our bodies sufficient time to recover from their daily exertions. The list of what a lack of sleep can do to you is alarming but in a nutshell, sleep deprivation sufferers are twice as likely to die prematurely. And yet getting enough sleep is really easy, if you grasp a few very simple concepts, the most useful of which I felt was that sleep runs in ninety minute cycles. So, work out when you want to get up and how much sleep you want that night. Then work back in ninety minute chunks until you find your bedtime. I tried it last night. It works!
Experience is not reality. We still understand very little about the way our brains work. But with Professor Wiseman as our guide, we at least know a little more at the end of this hugely entertaining and educating hour. This was a one-off performance, but anyone interested in his ideas need only reach for the internet, where a lot can be explored at your leisure.
Richard Wiseman’s engaging style of delivery, clarity of communication and generous sprinkling of humour made this an hour to remember. And no-one nodded off either.