Sleep research studies a thing we all do every night – sleeping. You will be surprised to learn that there is much more to this ordinary activity than you thought.
There are only two things that happen on an average day: sleep, and everything else. And, since we spend our waking lives thinking about everything else, let’s take a moment to appreciate one of the life’s most underrated pleasures, the art of slumber. Here is a compilation of scary and amazing facts revealed by sleep research.
Hey, pay attention. If you snooze, you’ll lose.
Zombification of the Sleep-Deprived
Yeah, it happens. We sleep a third of our lives away, and often we just can’t help but sleep some more. Can’t we just not sleep and do so many other things? Like getting a doctorate, climbing a mountain, or wasting many, many hours on Netflix?
Let’s not mourn the hours lost – according to the teachings of Ayurveda medicine, sleep, or nidra; is one of the three pillars of health, along with aahar, or food, and brahmacharya, or sex. What should be mourned is the lesser degree of importance that today’s common lifestyle puts in catching those zzzs, compared to other areas of health, such as diet and exercise.
Let’s face it – we have become a generation of zombies, with caffeine-loaded cups of beverage and our life-wielding smartphones on hand. If you think sleep can be replaced by a Starbucks to-go cup, think again. In fact, sleep deprivation is a hugely relevant subject of sleep research in this millennium, exclusively for our species. Evolution has yet to come up with any bankable solution for sleep deprivation because, unfortunately, we’re the only animals on Earth doing this to ourselves. So, the truth to the expression really is, if you don’t snooze, then you will lose.
Here’s some sleep research that will tell you what exactly you will lose:
Sleep deprivation and its effects on the human brain and body
In one study of 48 healthy adults, chronic restriction of sleep hours to 4 or 6 hours per night (which is probably still plenty for most people) over the span of two weeks resulted in a significantly poorer performance in cognitive tasks. What’s more, when the participants were asked to rate their sleepiness during the sleep restriction, there was no apparent change. These findings suggest that people are mostly unaware of the negative effects that sleeplessness brings, perpetuating the sentiment that losing a few hours of sleep isn’t as harmful as it actually is. In fact, another study has found that after 17 to 19 hours of sleeplessness, the cognitive losses become equivalent to that brought by intoxication.
Do we gain anything from losing sleep? Students in universities with papers to cram would argue – time. More sleep research keeps telling us that it isn’t worth it. Aside from time, sleep-deprived individuals also gain increased attention deficits resulting in riskier behavior.
Sleepless nights also add numbers to our age, biologically-speaking: findings from yet another sleep research suggest that one night of sleeplessness among older adults tends to promote biological aging through the activation of particular biological pathways.
Sleep research on rodents
According to a bunch of studies in behavioral neuroscience, cognitive functions in numerous regions of the brains of the sleep-deprived do become grossly impaired. And it isn’t just human brains that are getting hit by the sleep deprivation epidemic – we see the same effects on rodent brains, too.
These tiny, sleep-deprived creatures have tremendously helped science figure out the role of sleep in memory and thought processing. So how do researchers force sleep deprivation onto rodents? Well, there are three usual ways through which an animal gets sleep-deprived during experimental preparation. The first method, called gentle stimulation, involves tapping the animal’s cage to keep him awake. Forced locomotion is another way in which the animal is kept moving through a little treadmill, or other similar tools. The last method, called flowerpot method, involves the animal being placed atop a platform in a tank of water – if the animal falls asleep and loses motor control, it falls in the water and wakes up.
Sleep deprivation in rodents has given researchers vast control over which particular aspect of thinking is observed, and correspondingly, which brain regions are implicated. For instance, the hippocampus, which has been considered the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system, is one of the many regions of the brain that is sensitive to the effects of sleep deprivation. This is why when mice are asked to accomplish the Morris Water Maze task, they perform substantially worse on memory and learning. Of course, other brain regions may be at play depending on which task rodents are trained to accomplish. What the rodents — and the sleep research — are trying to tell us here is, we need to take care of our neural circuitry.
Falling Asleep, Counting Sheep
We spend about a third of our lives sleeping. What happens right before we close our eyes and go off to dreamland? How do we know we’re ready for our share of zzzs?
Sleepiness is a different thing from sleep altogether, and researchers have come up with a valid method for measuring daytime sleepiness, called the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. Going to sleep is like setting a stage – you’ve got to make sure the mood is right. Turning off the lights is part of the common sleep ritual for most individuals, and is something of a prerequisite to getting a good night’s rest.
Our sleeping patterns are dictated by an internal body clock, more formally called circadian rhythms, that take its cue from the presence and absence of daylight. Therefore, sensitivity to light helps the brain align itself with daytime and nighttime. Specifically, the body releases the hormone melatonin when it gets dark, preparing the body for sleep. That’s why an unhealthy exposure to bright, artificial light in the late evening can mess with our body clock and make it harder for us to fall asleep. In the same way, looking at the bright screens of our laptops and smartphones right as we are about to go to sleep can have adverse effects on our sleeping patterns, sleep research reveals. Clearly then, binge-watching Seinfeld before going to bed would be ill-advised. Maybe a pocketbook?
Have you ever experienced that sudden, unmistakable feeling of falling from your bed right as you are about to fall asleep? See, falling asleep isn’t as quick and easy as flipping a switch. Going from wakefulness to sleep involves the hypnagogic state, a twilight zone in which we are highly relaxed and at peace. Often, we are forcefully snapped out of this enjoyable state between dreaming and daydreaming, and suddenly we experience a feeling of freefall. This scary phenomenon is called myoclonia, and it’s more common than you think. Sleep research reveals that myoclonias are caused by normal, seizure-like states of the brain as our bodies prepare to enter the realm of sleep.
There’s a lot more going on during sleep than just the closing of one’s eyes. The year 1952 saw the discovery at the University of Chicago of the fascinatingly odd phenomenon of rapid eye movement during sleep, which paved the way for further sleep research and fascinatingly odd discoveries regarding the states of consciousness of the human brain.
After the hypnagogic state, we transit into the next four stages of sleep, called non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Light sleep characterizes the first two, while the next two stages are characterized by deep sleep. The fifth and final stage, simply called REM, is where the good stuff –well mostly- happens. REM sleep was a startling discovery during its time; because aside from the rapid movement of the eyes under closed eyelids, brain waves were also recorded to be resembling a person who’s awake. Cool, huh! The explanation for this, though, came easy enough – dreams.
Off to Dreamland
People spend an approximate total of six years in dreamland in one lifetime. Here’s an important question – do we dream in color, or in black and white? Research says that for most people, it’s something in between. Dreams usually have few intense colors and blurry backgrounds.
A study in the United States found that people with a long history of color exposure on the media, particularly colored (versus black-and-white) television reported higher instances of colored dreaming. But regardless of color, dreams are mostly visual. One-fourth of the dreams are accompanied by auditory sensations, and one-fifth include bodily sensations that are mostly sexual.
Are nightmares dreams too?
Yes. Nightmares are defined as exceptionally frightening, sad, or uncomfortable dreams that occur during REM sleep, but the scariest ones, called night terrors, are a different thing altogether. According to sleep research, night terrors are upsetting nocturnal experiences that occur during the deepest parts of non-REM sleep. They cause the individual to wake up in a state of panic, sometimes screaming with fright and confusion, and with absolutely no recollection of what exactly they saw.
Sleep apnea is a sudden inability to breathe while asleep, usually lasting a few seconds to minutes which causes the individual to jerk awake. In some cases, sleep apnea is accompanied by paralysis and hallucinations. Some of which we better leave for another time…