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Written by Tyler Wetzel on Monday, December 02, 2013
Neuroscientist Russell Foster delivered a presentation to TEDGlobal regarding our dependency on sleep, and how we as a society don’t appreciate a good nights rest. And he asks: What do we know about sleep? Not a lot, it turns out, for something we do with one-third of our lives. In his Ted talk, Foster shares three popular theories about why we sleep, busts some myths about how much sleep we need at different ages — and hints at some bold new uses of sleep as a predictor of mental health.
He quotes Thomas Edison, “Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days”, and Margaret Thatcher, “Sleep is for wimps.” In a nutshell we are inclined to resist sleep, especially in an age of the internet where distractions are rampant and our basic bodily needs can be lost in the stream of activity that surrounds us. Foster goes on to say that not only do we not appreciate sleep, but we treat it like an illness and an enemy.
Scientists have been debating the function of sleep for decades and it’s true function has never been conclusively decided upon. Although, we do know that some areas of the brain are more active during the sleep stage than while the body is awake. But the essential question is: Why do we sleep? Currently, there isn’t any real consensus, but Foster gives us three possible answers:
Sleep replenishes and repairs metabolic processes. Many genes are “turned on” only during sleep — genes associated with restoration and metabolic pathways. Also, while you’re asleep you generate higher levels of neurotransmitters which help replenish your muscles in preparation of tomorrow’s activity. Restoration theories of sleep make cognitive sense since we suffer so many unpleasant consequences when deprived of sleep
Sleep also allows your body to save calories. The difference between sleeping and quietly resting is about 110 calories a night, the equivalent of a hot dog bun. All in all, it’s not a very good upshot for such a complex process. You’d be better off exercising or find a way to induce sleep walking.
Studies show that if you prevent people from sleeping after learning a task, their ability to learn is subsequently smashed. And even better, our abilities to come up with novel solutions after a complex task are reduced after sleep deprivation. Supposedly your brain is consolidating memories and images of day. The transition of complex events or images are moved from your short term memory to your long term. If you’re worried you’re forgetting things, you can always zap your brain with an electrode.
Foster’s true expertise shows in his new research. Foster and his colleagues are conducting experiments on the links between sleep and mental illness. According to Foster’s research, genes that have been shown to be important in the generation of sleep, when muted, predispose individuals to mental-health problems. He points out that sleep levels could be used as an early warning signals for illnesses like schizophrenia. Research has found that schizophrenia patients stay awake during the night phase, asleep during day, suggesting that sleep and mental illness are not simply associated, they are physically linked. Which opens the door for sleep to be used as a new therapeutic target.
Studies have been conducted that counter restoration theories. Although none are conclusive I have outlined some key points below:
Some simple tips to help you get a good night’s sleep:
Have you ever wanted to take control of your dreams? Now you can, with the science of how to lucid dream! With these simple steps, and a little practice, you’ll soon experience sleep like never before.
Have you ever wished you could record your dreams and watch them later? It may be possible sooner than you think.
Another interesting video by our friends at Vsauce about how dreaming affects the brain, lucid dreaming and much more.
Read next: You’re Not Using Cognitive Dissonance Right
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