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  • Writer's pictureMelinda

Sleep: Who needs it?

There is no reason for this picture to be of a fox except for the fact that OMG look how cute it is with his little nose and bushy tail. And he's on a tree stump!!! Man, if he wouldn't claw my face off, I'd totally go hug this guy right now.

So, anyway, sleep, who needs it? We all do. Duh. End of post. Kidding...

But in all seriousness, sleep is absolutely critical for all of us. I have not had a decent night of sleep in about… how old is my eldest daughter? She’s only 7 but if you count those last several weeks of pregnancy, the ones where you’re as big as a house and have to do a 3-point turn to get out of bed, then it’s been about 8 years. That’s a long time without legitimate sleep.

“Oh, wow, Melinda,” you’ll say. “Another mom complaining about sleep deprivation. How original.”

And I’ll say, “yeah, ok, you’re right, but like, how many moms then follow up with talking about the neuroscience and health effects of lack of sleep? Huh? That’s right, pipet drop.” Jesus, I’m a dork.

Anyway, if you’re like me, you may wonder why the heck do we even need sleep anyway? It honestly creeps me out to think about how we spend a cumulative 25-30 years asleep in our lifetimes. I could do so much more in my life if I had that time! I could write another novel that I never publish! Hell, maybe even 3 of those. Well, when I put it that way, maybe sleep would be more productive.

The answer to why we need sleep is a tough one to pinpoint. And I’m not a sleep scientist. But I think it’s pretty well accepted across the board that sleep is beneficial in nearly every health parameter you can measure. So while I can’t give one specific answer, I can outline what our brains do for us while we sleep and point you towards measurable health effects of sleep deprivation.

So, what do our brains do when we sleep? That sounds super creepy. Like they are some separate entity that’s like “whew, that old bag of skin is out for the night, now we can take over the world, Pinky and the Brain style…” I can assure you, it doesn’t think that. What it does do is consolidate memories. That means it translates working memory into permanent memory.

The way we learn something depends on the fact that when neurons are activated together, the connections between them strengthen. The cute little thing neuroscientists like to say is “cells that fire together, wire together.” Silly and whimsical, but true. They also like to scream “no we do not use only 10% of our brains!” but I’ve already ranted about that before (see my first blog post).

Studies on rodents show that memories are consolidated during certain phases of sleep. For example, if a rat must visit locations A, C, D, B, in that order, to receive a treat, he will learn to do it quite well. Rats are hella smart. A certain set of neurons will fire at each location the rat visits. So some neurons fire at A, another subset at B, etc. Then, while the rat sleeps (I know you’re picturing a cute little rat asleep and dreaming of cheese, maybe with a little quilt like in the cartoons), his brain recites the code over and over ACDB ACDB ACDB and so on all day long. Then, the next time the researchers test the rat, it’s even better at running the task and it gets tons of treats until it has to do its own 3-point turn to get out of its little rat bed. You pictured that, now, didn’t you? If researchers disturb the rat’s sleep enough, he will not do as well on the task. Sad rat. Go on, imagine that too.

This is similar for humans. We know that memory formation is dependent on sleep too. When people go without sleep, they tend to be forgetful. One scientific review article highlights that people will suffer ill effects on mood and are more likely to injure themselves in an accident. So basically, people get grumpy and klutzy. Well, sure, we’ve all been there, right? But it’s worse, long-term cardiovascular health is negatively affected by sleep deprivation too.

I remember in a neuroscience class in college, we discussed the world record for staying awake. Randy Gardner is now in his seventies but decided to stay awake for as long as possible for a science fair project in high school. The kid stayed awake for more than 11 days! I mean, Jesus, I’m getting grumpy and klutzy just thinking about it. Well, I’m almost never grumpy, but I’m convinced I came out of the womb tripping. Randy reported nausea and feeling like he had early-onset Alzheimer’s during his days of being awake. I’d encourage you to read the NPR article (linked below) to learn more about Randy. I’ve also linked the Wikipedia page about him, which is hilarious because it has some obvious untruths in it, like the very untrue fact that he exploded. Ha! Gotta love Wikipedia.

So, ‘mom brain’ is a real thing. Be kind to new mothers, especially. Feeding a newborn every 2 hours SUCKS. Why did you eat that apple, Eve?! (Shakes fist at sky, where, presumably, biblical Eve lives). I’d like to make a note here that I have had fewer hours of sleep than normal this month due to my toddler being sick off and on, so my already bad jokes are just, well, super-duper bad right now. Oh, well.

So, while I haven’t outlined every single reason we need sleep, I hope I have convinced you that we need it for full mental capacity.

Anyway, go forth and sleep, my dear readers. Thanks for reading! I hope my post didn't lull you into a slumber but rather energized you to better understand the brain. Until next time, Gadget...


Your average neuroscientist, Melinda

Interesting links:

Randy Gardner's Wikipedia page (note: there is false and silly information)

Scientific review of how sleep deprivation affects health

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