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Sleep: More to it than meets the eye

Sleep is one of those things we don’t really think about. We get up,

eat, go to work, eat again, come home and then sleep. But we never really

think about sleep. In each of the stages mentioned, we don’t constantly think

about sleep. In fact, we don’t think about it all. We might begin to daydream,

but we don’t think about the act of sleeping by itself. Why? Probably because

there isn’t much to think about, or is there? To find out, we need to define


Sleep has been defined many times. It is a “non waking state of

consciousness characterized by general unresponsiveness to the

environment and physical immobility” (Lefton 95). In other words, sleep is a

state of temporary paralysis in which our brain is still processing information,

but we are not aware of it. In essence, sleep is a partial detachment from

the world, where most external stimuli are blocked from the senses.

We often take sleep for granted and overlook its importance. Sleep is

an “innate biological rhythm that can never be ignored” (Coon 199). It is a

process which replenishes our physical and mental energy. Day in and day

out we have to carry out a boring monotonous routine, be it work or school,

and for it we need energy. We don’t have an abundance of energy, but we

can recharge our ‘batteries’ using sleep. This is often referred to as the
Restorative Theory. The Adaptive Non-Responding Theory according to which

“sleep developed, in the particular forms and patterns it took in species, as a

behavior that increased the likelihood of that species’ survival”(Webb). For

human beings this adaptive response was not responding. An example would

be that of cavemen. Those who wandered out at night probably got killed by

other predators, while those who slept were safe and remained alive.

The most recent theory on why we need sleep is based on the idea of

circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are “daily cycles in behavioral or

physiological activity”(Crider 183). Circadian rhythms are present in many

physiological functions such as body temperature, flow of hormone levels

etc. These rhythms continue even in enclosed environments without clocks

or any cues about it being light or dark outside. Our body maintains a

biological clock with a 25-hour cycle of waking and sleeping activity. Sleep is

a circadian rhythm and is an essential part of our daily cycle. Why did it

become a part of our daily cycle? Probably because of our ancestors and the

dangers involved in hunting or foraging outside at night.

Since sleep is a natural process and essential for our survival, it follows

that a lack of sleep would result in harm to our mind and body. There have

been several psychological tests about how long a person can go on without

sleep. But those results vary from person to person. A teenager was found to

be able to go for eleven days, while a disc jockey, Peter Tripp was found to
last for two hundred hours (Luce). “Most people who have not slept for 2 or 3

days can still do interesting or complex mental tasks” (Binks). However,

sleep loss is dangerous. Severe sleep loss can cause sleep-deprivation

psychosis i.e. loss of contact with reality. To understand how all of this

happens and why it does, we need to understand the logistics of sleep.

Sleep is a cognitive process. Our brain generates electrical signals all

the time during sleep. Psychologists have divided sleep into two major

categories and five separate stages. The two categories are NREM and REM

sleep. NREM stands for non rapid eye movement while REM stands for rapid

eye movement. They have been so named because during that is exactly

what happens during those stages. The five stages are:

1. Stage 1(NREM)

This stage could be called the ‘dozing stage’. We begin to lose

consciousness and get into a relaxed stage. At this point of time, our

brain produces alpha waves( slow moving waves). As we enter stage 1,

the alpha waves are replaced by theta waves and breathing and heart

rate slow down as the muscles relax and body temperature falls.

2. Stage 2(NREM)
We spend about 50% our sleep in stage 2. It is a deeper level of sleep

and is identified by the appearance of rapid waves from time to time.

These waves look like the thread rapped around a sewing spindle and

are hence called sleep spindles. You get cold at this stage and need a

blanket. We also have special brain waves of higher amplitude called K-

complexes present in the brain at this time.

3. Stage 3(NREM)

This is a transitional stage between stage 2 and stage 4 with new large

and slow brain waves appearing in the brain. These waves are called

delta waves and are usually accompanied by a greater loss of


4. Stage 4(NREM)

This is the deepest stage of sleep. In this stage, you are very difficult to

awaken and are completely unaware of noises or any activity around

you. Delta waves predominate in this stage. This is the stage in which

you see all the common sleeping disorders such as bedwetting, night

terror, sleep talking and sleepwalking.

5. Stage 5(REM)

This stage is characterized by rapid eye movements and dreaming. Out

of all the stages of sleep, this is the only stage in which we dream. REM
sleep is often called paradoxical sleep because people at this stage

look as if though they’re about to wake up, but in reality it is difficult to

wake them up.

In a typical sleep pattern, we go through all the stages from 1 to 5 and

then don’t return to stage 1 again. Instead we continue to stages 2, 3 and 4

and back to REM. After the second cycle, sleep in stage 4 disappears and as

the cycles go on, the amount of time spent in stage 2 decreases while the

amount of time spend in REM increases.

Even though the stages of sleep are the same for all human beings,

the amount of sleep needed by each person varies. On an average, infants

need 16 hours of sleep, teenagers need 9 hours and early adults and old

adults need about 7 or 8 hours. Why does the amount of sleep needed vary

with age? It’s primarily because people of different ages live different

lifestyles. The young boy next door who seems full of energy all the time and

is bouncing all over the place, gets all of his energy from his sleep. To have

that much of energy, he needs to sleep more. As we grow up, we tend to do

away with all that hyperactivity and live a more stable lifestyle. Once our

daily routine has been established, we stick to it. For maintaining our daily

routine, we need an optimum amount of energy, which we can get by

sleeping for about 7 to 8 hours. The other reason is that the NREM-REM cycle

changes from infancy to adulthood, as sleep changes from a “polyphasic

pattern(sleeping in many periods) to a monophasic one(sleeping in one

period)”(Benjamin 180). It is believed that REM sleep in infancy is related to

maturation of the nervous system that is not complete at birth. As the child

grows older, the maturation decreases and hence the REM sleep also

decreases. Hence the total sleep time differs from person to person. Other

reasons also exist such as “sleep latency”, which means that it takes longer

for you to fall asleep(Benjamin 181). An increase in sleep latency generally

occurs with old age.

Sleep and Sleep patterns are something that we don’t really have

control over. If you think about it, sleep is an innate biological activity. It is

one of those involuntary things that we have to do, or one of those things,

which just happens. For example, a person who is wide-awake cannot be

made to sleep and similarly a sleepy person cannot be kept awake for a long

time. Our sleep patterns and circadian rhythms are beyond our control. The

only possible way we can control our sleep patterns is with external help. If

there is constant stimulus from the outside such as constant fear or a

constant nagging element, then we can fight our sleep and prolong our

duration of staying awake, but in the end sleep always gets its way. That

explains why even after being disturbed in our sleep, we always go back,

maybe if not immediately, then after usually a small amount of time. As far

as brain waves are considered, any form of disturbance results in the

production of K-complexes and waves of similar wavelengths, but even then,

we cannot control the sleep cycle.

Sleep is as important of food. And just like food, too much or too little

of sleep can be detrimental to our health. Sleep deprivation is the process in

which a person’s sleep is reduced or eliminated. As a result of tests

conducted on individuals as the ones mentioned initially in this journal,

researchers have concluded that after 2 or 3 days, a sleep deprived person

engages in microsleeps which are brief “2 to 5 second bursts of sleep that

intrude into wakefulness” (Benjamin 179). After 10 days, the microsleeps

become so frequent that it is hard to tell whether the person is awake or

asleep, although they function as if they are awake (Hauri). If allowed to

continue, excessive sleeplessness can lead to paranoia, occasional

hallucinations and short-term personality changes (Dement). There is also an

Increased production of proteins and reduced protein breakdown. The

immune system gets weakened too.

This is primarily because of REM sleep deprivation. What is interesting to

note is that if a person stays without sleep for 11 days, then just a night

sleep is enough to get the person back on track. This is called the “Rebound

Effect” (Benjamin 179). It happens because when the person sleeps, the

body increases the amount of time spent in REM sleep.

Just as lack of sleep is bad, excessive sleep is bad too. Excessive sleep

means that you spent a lot of time replenishing your body for tasks that you

should be doing right then instead of sleeping. From experience, I can say

that instead of making you full of energy, it tends to make you sleepy and

groggy. It increases a person’s laziness and might result in hypersomnia.

Hypersomnia, which is basically excessive sleepiness, has been categorized

as a sleeping disorder and can be the result of anything from drug abuse to

sleep drunkenness.

Sleep is the best indicator of a person’s mental health. It is one of the

most telling indicators of mental disturbances. Since sleep is essential for a

normal life, anything other than the given amount of sleep indicates some

form of mental disturbance. Not only the duration of sleep, but also the

events that go on while a person sleeps give us an idea of what the person is

going through. Sleep apnea, night terrors and sleepwalking are a few

disorders that occur when a person is sleeping. Another way sleep can be

used to determine a person’s mental health is by measuring the person’s

brains signals while they are asleep using an electroencephalograph. An

abnormal pattern indicates that something is wrong with the person. Also if a

person gets a good night’s sleep they’re able to think better, respond quickly

and are more productive. They also affect our mood. An uncomfortable

mattress and a poor night's sleep can leave you depressed, stressed, and

tired at the start of the day—and, it goes downhill from there.

So far we’ve just talked about sleep without delving too much into the

realm of dreams, which is what we do in REM sleep. The first question that

comes to mind is what exactly is a dream? “A dream is state of

consciousness that occurs during sleep and is usually accompanied by vivid

usual imagery, although the imagery may also be tactile or auditory” (Lefton

99). Why do we dream? There are 2 major theories about why we dream and

they are as follows:

1. The Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud created the Psychoanalytic Theory in which he

proposed that dreams are derived from our unconscious drives or

wishes. During the day, these unconscious wishes are repressed or

suppressed, but at night the repression is relaxed and so the

unconscious dreams are more likely to emerge into consciousness.

Freud postulated a censor that transforms and disguises our

unconscious wishes so that the person’s sleep is undisturbed. He

believed that dreams come out in the form of two products: Manifest

content(the part of the dreams that we remember) and the Latent

Content(the part of the dreams which remains unconscious and is not

2. The Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis

This hypothesis was proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley.

They argued that the dream state of the REM cycle was generated

spontaneously by the pons in the brain. This activates the cortex in a

random manner. This random activation is responsible for the shifting

and fragmentary images of dreams. The cortex then synthesizes the

random messages by using stored information present in the memory.

Our best guess on where dreams originate from would be from

the activation synthesis hypothesis. Dreams probably do originate from

the cortex which in turn is activated by the pons. Dreaming is as

important an activity as sleeping. Dreams have often been used in

literature and art. Dreaming is seen as leaving this world and entering

another, one over which they have little control. The following quote by

Mary E. Coleridge gives us a brief idea of what man sees dreams to be:

“Breathe slumbrous music round me, sweet and slow,

To honied phrases set!

Into the land of dreams I long to go.”


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