What’s it about?

Unlock one of the most endangered human resources – sleep, the astonishing things, myths, and benefits.
It is becoming more and more evident that our sleep forms who we are, if not more.

About the author:

Kat Duff is an advisor and journalist for mental health. She is also the author of The Alchemy of Illness.

What’s in it for me? Sleep your way to a better life.

Recall the last time you slept right at night. It felt good. But have you ever wondered why you feel so good after a night of deep sleep?

Recent searches in neuroscience have shed new light on this question; we now know that sleep not only replenishes your body but refreshes your mind, improves your cognitive functions, and makes you less vulnerable to depression and obesity.

These blinks will show you how sleep works, how technological and cultural changes have destroyed our rest, and what we can learn from other cultures’ attitudes toward sleep.

There is a sleep switch in humans that makes us fall asleep, bringing inspiration and insight into our lives.

We’re all familiar with that vague yet calm feeling we get as we slip into dreamland, but how do we sleep? Some say the Sandman comes and sprays sand into your eyes, the Blackfoot Indians believe a butterfly stays to help you sail off, and the old Greeks believed in Hypnos, the god of sleep. But what can science tell us about napping?

Well, they discovered an asleep switch in humans.

Harvard University sleep researcher Clifford B. Saper recognized a collection of neurons in the hypothalamus – the brain area that controls metabolic processes and actions such as appetite and body temperature – termed the sleep switch.

Our bodies have a device to control sleep chemically. It functions day and night and manages internal equilibrium by making you sleep more or less, thanks to a chemical termed adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP consumes over the day, making us frequently exhausted until we fall asleep. Other chemicals gradually grow during our sleep until they reach the tipping point, causing us to awake.

When these neurons are closing and begin to fall asleep, the case is known as hypnagogia, and its identical transitional phase when we wake up is called hypnopompic.

During these transitional phases, we often obtain insight or feel motivated. Also, we may relive daytime events, see geometric figures in our sight, feel like we’re dropping or gliding, or think we’re extending and shrinking.

“While biology necessitates sleep, culture defines its shape and length, character and conditions.”

– Kat Duff

When, where, and how we sleep is affected by our culture.

We all eventually succumb to sleep. Studies have shown that even the chronic insomniacs among us experience microsleep, small bursts of sleep lasting from just under a second to 30 seconds. We all sleep in different ways, and culture is a critical factor in determining how we do it.

In the Western post-industrial world, people tend to have a sleep routine, do it in individual rooms and for one chunk of time. These habits are all designed to accommodate work and school demands and fit into the standardized time.

In contrast, non-Westerners often have more fluid sleeping patterns, sleep in bouts, and engage in co-sleeping, the practice of children sleeping within an arm’s reach of family members.

In Medieval Europe, sleep is about two parts, with one hour between sleeping sessions for drinking tea. These days, people in warmer climates, like in Spain, prefer an afternoon siesta and sleeping at night. Simultaneously, co-sleeping remains a standard practice in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Southern Europe, and Scandinavia.

Though sometimes viewed as odd by people who don’t live in these places, some believe co-sleeping positively affects adult behavior. Mayan mothers say it makes their children feel connected to others and improves their ability to understand and learn from them.

For Anglo-Saxons, co-sleeping mostly died out around the mid-1800s, as Americans taught their children to sleep in separate rooms to develop their independence. However, leaving babies to cry can make them hypersensitive and hurt their resilience.

Moreover, studies across cultures have found that children who share a bedroom with their parents between birth and five years of age are likely to be happier, more cooperative, more confident, and more independent when they grow older than children who sleep alone.

Sleep mainly consists of two forms: REM and SW.

You do it every night, but have you ever stopped to think about what sleep is?

Scientifically speaking, sleep is a fluctuating state consisting of two primary forms – rapid eye movement (REM) and slow-wave (SW) – which alternate around five to six times a night, on average every 90 minutes.

Decreased responses identify both states to outer stimuli and the ability to wake up. These features differentiate them from other conditions, such as a coma.

They named REM sleep after the way our eyes move under our eyelids when we sleep. It’s the most active stage of sleep, and it heats the brain, requiring other sleep stages to cool it down. In REM, our dreams are vivid, plentiful, and easy to recall.

We also use REM to learn, as neuroscientists such as Antti Revonsuo and Patrick McNamara have found. Revonsuo views REM dreams, such as fleeing from tsunamis, as a rehearsing method for and refining survival strategies; meanwhile, McNamara sees REM dreams as counterfactual versions of past events developed into a learning process.

On the other hand, SW is a deep sleep typified by slow, high-amplitude, and it is hard to wake up from synchronized brain waves. SW is our most vital form of sleep, and it also burns fat, which explains why not sleeping enough can lead to obesity. It’s likely our most necessary form of sleep, and while immersed in it, our dreams are fragmented and vague.

As those around the age of 50 and over know, the amount of SW sleep we get decreases over time. In fact, up to a quarter of 50-year-olds experience no SW sleep at all! It can be a factor in typical characteristics of aging, such as less muscle tone, decreased physical strength, higher body fat, thinning skin, tiredness, lower libido, memory loss, and immune malfunction.

So, it’s a good idea to value your sleep. As the Irish say, sleep is better than medicine!

Insomnia is more prevalent and problematic than sleep.

The French call it “dorveille,” while to others, it’s merely insomnia. Sadly, having trouble sleeping at night is a common ailment. According to the National Science Foundation’s 2008 Sleep in America Poll, 35 percent of Americans report that people are waking up in the middle of the night three or more times a week. The majority of Americans would even prefer getting a good night’s sleep to having sex!

As well as making us feel dreadful, sleep deprivation is also bad for our brain and body. Your performance suffers in a sleep-deprived state, your immunity is compromised, and your stress hormones creep up.

Even more worryingly, studies have found that a week of sleeping only four to five hours a night amounts to a cognitive impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of one percent!

So what can you do?

Try dividing your sleep into two parts. In the 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas A. Wehr carried out an experiment in which eight volunteers spent 14 hours in the dark every night for a month. Gradually, they began to settle into nine-hour periods of sleep spread over 12 hours, waking up for a few hours between bouts.

When the study ended, participants longed for this peaceful waking time. Participants also experienced elevated calming levels, satisfying hormones melatonin and prolactin, supporting nerve cell growth; these levels fell after the experiment.

Our attitudes can also help alleviate insomnia. Modern societies tend to view money, success, and achievements as more valuable than getting restful sleep; a shift in perspective could lead to a much healthier sleep cycle.

In addition to our societal attitudes, artificial light affects us, too. Weirdly, our bodies regulate our sleep cycles with the rising and setting of the sun. The Dracula of hormones, melatonin, is only produced at night and is crucial for inducing sleep, and looking at your computer screen until 2:00 a.m. disrupts this natural process.

Interwoven states of sleeping and waking are cultural.

Have you ever woken up expecting to see what you were dreaming about in front of your eyes, or later wondered if that conversation with your friend really happened or if you just imagined it? Upon waking up, it’s often hard to distinguish your dreams from reality.

Interestingly, every culture has a way of interpreting this division. Central American Mayans, for instance, speak of waking and sleeping as walking with a foot in each world; the Hindu Upanishads understand sleep as more real than our waking life, and African traditions see rest as a way to communicate with the dead and receive advice.

We all dream, and some of us even experience hallucinations, syncopes, or loss of consciousness. But distinguishing between these states and our waking state isn’t so clear-cut. Sleeping and waking intertwine, assist one another, and are difficult to isolate. Our daily worries sometimes seep into our dreams, and our dreams sometimes take a while to fade away in the morning.

In 2008, physiologist James M. Krueger of the University of Wisconsin found that sleep can occur in some parts of the brain while others are still awake. With this in mind, a friend of the author compared this process to popping popcorn; you don’t know which kernel will pop next, but eventually, all will pop, and in this case, send you into sleep mode.

So how does this work? When small, independent groups of neurons grow weary from use, they release more of the chemical ATP and shift into the sleep state while other neurons remain awake. But when neurons enter sleep mode, neighboring groups tend to follow in a somewhat unpredictable way. It suggests that the transition into and out of sleeping and waking may take longer and be more complicated than previously thought.

“All that we sense, perceive, intuit and dream – is real and useful.”

-Kat Duff

Sleeping improves our memory and helps us cope better with emotions.

Many of us begrudgingly force ourselves out of bed in the mornings, often feeling lazy if we’re not up and about at a decent hour. But getting plenty of sleep is essential for our cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being.

SW sleep preserves our thoughts by repeating information we learn during the day, while REM sleep includes these memories into what we already know.

The result of this is what researchers refer to as memory consolidation. When neural connections we rarely use become weaker and newly formed memories become more robust, our brains replicate them. In this way, as we sleep, short-term memory transitions into long-term memory.

This process was discovered in the 1990s by neuroscientist Matthew Walker in his experiments with rats. He found that rats “practiced” running through a maze in their brains 20 times faster when they were sleeping than when they are awake.

These same rats were also better at running through the mazes after having slept. In this sense, we function just like rats; we remember things better after resting and often wake up better equipped to solve problems. Because we know this, researchers advise students to take naps to aid their studies.

Then, it follows that our dreams can help with emotional trauma, often showing us multiple perspectives and thereby helping us understand and process experiences more effectively.

Everyone dreams because it is inherent to human nature.

Do you know someone who swears they never dream? Well, as you might have guessed, they do – they don’t remember it.

Dreaming is innate to humans; researchers have found that we dream around four to six times a night. So the question isn’t whether we dream, but why some remember their dreams and others don’t.

Remembering dreams have to do with personality, how you wake up, your attitude toward goals, how long you sleep, and the intensity of your dreams. Studies have shown that we tend to forget around half of our dreams in the first five minutes after waking and a whopping 90 percent after only ten minutes. Our memory gets more flawed still if we’re jolted awake by an alarm, leap out of bed, or don’t get enough sleep.

So how can we remember our dreams better? Experts suggest getting enough sleep and reminding ourselves as we’re drifting off that we intend to recall them in the morning. Upon waking, you should lay still and acknowledge how you feel, noting any images or sensations, and write it down as soon as you can to revisit later on.

Although we all dream differently, most of us make a distinction between everyday dreams and extraordinary dreams. The founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, called these big dreams and little dreams.

Big dreams are unforgettable and result in considerable life changes or experiences; they not only contain memories but create new experiences beyond our current knowledge. The most common big dream involves a visit from a deceased person. These dreams are profound, like psychiatrist William Dement’s dream of suffering from inoperable lung cancer, which led him to quit smoking the next day. Abraham Lincoln’s vision of being assassinated only days before people killed him in real life is another prime example.

” The more interest we take in our dreams, the more we remember.”

– Kat Duff

Waking up is challenging due to typical jet lag and sleep laziness.

People who wake up with a spring in their step are hard to come by; for most of us, waking up is a real chore. But have you ever considered why? It’s all due to social jet lag and sleeps inertia.

Social jet lag describes our internal biological rhythms’ discord and our actual sleep schedules, primarily determined by school and work.

Our circadian body clocks account for most of our daily fluctuations, including blood pressure, body temperature, immune system, hormones, appetite, thirst, arousal, and sleep cycles.

These biologically driven changes affect the length of sleep we need, determine whether we’re night owls or early birds, and affect how we wake up. However, due to our packed daily routines and increased activities, whether social or work-related, along with the constant use of electrical light, we now sleep and work at hours that aren’t always compatible with our natural rhythm.

Chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, who coined the term social jet lag, estimates that 40 percent of the Central European population is always two or more hours behind on sleep. In the long run, this can seriously compromise human health, leading to chronic fatigue, digestive problems, and weight gain.

Furthermore, in 2007, the World Health Organization stated that disruptions to circadian rhythm through shift work might even be carcinogenic.

In addition to social jet lag, many of us suffer from sleep inertia. It refers to the struggle of getting out of bed and is based on Newton’s first law of motion, which indicates that a body at relaxation tends to stay relaxed. Our brains don’t just flick on like light bulbs when we wake up; instead, some brain regions activate more quickly than others.