The Strange & Surprising Science of Sleep
In his book Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, author David K. Randall calls sleep “one of the dirty little secrets of science.” That’s because despite spending almost a third of our lives sleeping, we don’t really know much about the process of sleep.
In fact, Randall, a senior reporter at Reuters, notes that sleep is one of the youngest fields in science. Until the 1950s, researchers believed that our brains remained quiet during slumber.
But the discovery of the stages of sleep shattered this perspective. For instance, our brains are just as active in REM sleep — aptly named rapid eye movement because our eyes shift rapidly against our lids — as they are when we’re awake.
In Dreamland, Randall shares a slew of these fascinating, surprising and eye-opening facts, anecdotes and research studies. These are a few curious tidbits from his book.
Our Normal Sleep Isn’t So Normal
Today, we think that sleeping through the night is a sign of normal and healthy slumber. In fact, people who wake up around the same time every night think their sleep is fractured — and that something is wrong, Randall writes. And when they complain about this concern to their doctors, they probably walk away with a sleeping pill, he says.
But segmented sleep has actually been the norm for thousands of years — that is, until the advent of artificial lighting. In the 1980s and ‘90s, history professor Roger Ekirch began seeing interesting patterns in his book collection, which included tales and medical texts: references to “first sleep” and “second sleep.”
Psychiatrist Thomas Wehr also began seeing strange results in his sleep experiment: After participants, who were deprived of artificial light for up to 14 hours, caught up on their sleep and felt more rested, they’d wake up around midnight and lie awake for about an hour, and then fall asleep.
In another study, Wehr found that during that hour awake the brains of participants were churning out higher levels of prolactin. This hormone reduces stress and relaxes the body after orgasm, according to Randall.
Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, people would fall asleep after sunset. Then they’d naturally wake up around midnight for about an hour. During that time individuals might do anything from praying to reading to having sex. Then they’d naturally fall back asleep until morning.
Randall notes that other studies have confirmed that people naturally experience segmented sleep. And in areas with no artificial light, people still experience first and second sleep.
Naps Get a Bad Rap
In our society, naps are viewed as luxurious activities only reserved for the privileged or the lazy. That’s a shame, because research continues to show the benefits of naps and discredit these beliefs.
One study found that astronauts who slept for just 15 minutes had better cognitive performance, even when there was no boost in their alertness or ability to pay attention.
Another study found that participants who napped and experienced the deeper stages of sleep had more flexible thinking. They were able to apply information they memorized to a new task much better than participants who watched a movie instead of napping.
Randall also notes that participants who take naps outperform their counterparts who aren’t allowed to doze off on other various tasks. For instance, research has found that they’re able to finish mazes faster and remember longer lists of words.
Big companies have even made naps part of their workday. According to Randall, Google and Nike are just some of the companies that have created specific spaces for their workers to sleep. “The idea is that naps may allow engineers and designers to arrive at creative solutions more quickly than they would by staying awake all day,” he writes.
In Dreamland Randall explores many more peculiar issues surrounding sleep, from the purpose of dreams to the bizarre world of sleepwalking and “sleep crime.”
While sleep research is in its infancy, one fact is undeniable: Sleep is vital for everything from our survival to our success.
When functioning optimally, sleep can sharpen our thinking and help us problem solve (like golfer Jack Nicklaus did when he figured out how to tweak his swing in his sleep). When gone wrong – as in cases of sleepwalking and sleep deprivation – it can distort our cognitive skills, sink our mood and even make us dangerous.
As Randall notes, “Sleep isn’t a break from our lives. It’s the missing third of the puzzle of what it means to be living.”
Woman sleeping photo available from Shutterstock
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Tartakovsky, M. (2013). The Strange & Surprising Science of Sleep. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/01/07/the-strange-surprising-science-of-sleep/