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The mysteries of sleep

We spend one-third of our lives sleeping. Way too much – according to hyperactive people –, we could do so many things during this time! That is right! We could work harder, we could have more fun, we could learn so much more. We have so many things to handle, yet we waste 30% of our time on earth sleeping! Well, that may hold true for our bodies, but certainly not for our brains! When we sleep, our neurons continue to deal with the issues we have been trying to solve during the day – they finally get the chance to do this in peace and quiet, without disturbances coming from our deeply human emotions and comments. Our brain is not asleep, is at work: silently, but diligently.

What does our brain do during the sleep?

Every now and then scientists lift another corner of the mysterious veil that covers the world of dreams: what exactly is the purpose of sleep? What do our brain cells do, without our knowledge, all these hours? Could it be that they run wild inside our heads and set up chaotic connections from which dreams are born?

Human guinea pigs on the altar of scientific inquiry

A team of German researchers, for instance, carefully selected a group of 106 students and put them through quick puzzle tests – mental exercises whereby they were supposed to identify certain patterns hidden in series of numbers. In fact, they were asked to take a quick look at a problem they were not expected to solve until the following day. Meanwhile, some of the “guinea pigs” were allowed to sleep for as long as eight hours, while the others were deprived of sleep for shorter or longer periods – some of them had to spend the whole night without sleeping.

Does this brain know no rest?!

The next morning, the volunteers were given the same problem, only this time they were asked to solve it. The results were impressive: those who had got enough sleep managed to solve the “mystery” twice as fast as those who had stayed awake all night. As for the subjects who had experienced various levels of sleep deprivation, their performances were closely related to the amount of sleep they had.

The German researchers concluded that, when we sleep, our brain continues to work on the problems we have been trying to sort out during the day and seeks solutions. The highest brain activity does not take place during REM sleep (the phase when dreams occur), but during deep sleep – REM (or paradoxical) sleep being the phase when our brain cells focus on the daytime problems.

Sleepless nights and dark thoughts

Following the logic presented above, sleep quality plays a decisive role in how we start the day: with a brain that is in perfect condition and fully able to easily “digest” the information from the day before or, on the contrary, is scatter-brained, unable to concentrate and, of course, sulky and bad-tempered.

The famous dictum “Night is the mother of counsel” thus reveals its meaning. Here is another good one though: “If we are to sit crooked and speak straight”, or, even better, “in all fairness”, the findings of the above-described study may be relative, as not even its authors are 100% certain of them. (They used words like “apparently” or “it seems that” in 89-90% of the cases.) Maybe the fact that some of the subjects had less sleep or no sleep at all was not completely relevant. Maybe some of the members of the “rested” group were more quick-witted than some of those who did not sleep, therefore, chances are that the results are relative.

There will be, of course, more research teams, more studies, more groups of volunteers, and more experiments trying to confirm the theory of the German fellow scientists.

However, one thing is already certain: we should not neglect the importance of sleep, if really we care about our neurons and want to keep them fit.

Therefore, no more bedtime reading, no more writing in the diary, no more crossword puzzles. Lights out! Your brain just cannot wait for you to fall asleep so it can resume its work. Its job description says “nonstop schedule”.

You may also want to read:
Sleep paralysis, between scientific explanations and paranormal beliefs

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