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Sleeping? There’s a nap for that

The question of how long you should be sleeping for drifts in and out of the public eye with few groundbreaking announcements coming through. This raises the question of just how important sleep really is; if we’ve come this far with little care for this aspect of our lives, it can’t be that important can it? Wrong, it can.

Why should you care?  We all like numbers, so here’s another one – 26. That’s roughly the number of years you’ll spend asleep (assuming we make it to 79), a third of humanity’s time is spent with it’s eyes closed and body on standby – I’d like to give it some more attention. Also, it’s a wonderful thought that during these years, your brain is no longer bound by the laws of everyday life, it can wander as far and wide as it pleases and come morning, you’ll likely remember nothing of its nonsensical travels. To top this all off – we can only theorize the specifics of what is really going on in these periods of brain activity.

Sweet Dreams Dreaming is without doubt one of the most interesting areas of this topic that really deserves its own discussion as it is such an impressive unknown. There are a number of plausible theories for the reasons and processes of dreaming that are most definitely worth a quick Google search. There are two broad areas that these theories fall into: dreams are down to psychological factors or they are strictly due to random physiological stimulation. One of the most famous dream theories come from Sigmund Freud who falls into the psychology bracket. Freud theorized that dreams represented a repressed longing that is only freed in the symbolic world of dreams. More recent work by Hobson and McCarley suggests that dreams are simply due to random electrical impulses that pull images from any and all experiences that have been stored. They hypothesized that these images don’t form the conventional manifest content of a dream. Instead, the rational brain’s longing for logic tries to make sense of this ostensibly random string of thoughts and constructs what the person remembers.

The structure of sleep. Whilst there are large grey areas in our knowledge, the different stages of sleep can and have been charted and their effects observed. The “Sleep Cycle” that occurs multiple times throughout the night consists of stages one through four followed by Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. The time spent in these stages varies between the age groups with stages 1/2 representing “light” sleep, 3/4 representing “deep” sleep and REM being particularly unique. During REM sleep our eyes jerk rapidly, our breathing becomes shallow and irregular and our muscles become paralyzed – sounds terrifying right? Ignoring the side effects, REM sleep is a vital part of the cycle and stimulates the part of the brain associated with learning which could explain why infants spend so much longer in REM sleep than adults. There is also an interesting correlation between average amount of REM sleep of a species and the immaturity of the young at birth. For example, the dolphin born able to swim and fend for itself has little to no REM sleep as opposed to platypus offspring, entirely helpless but have large amounts of REM sleep.

How long should you be sleeping for? I regret to inform you that after all this that I still don’t know, of course there are guidelines but each individual is well… individual. There are a blessed few who can function on 4/5 hours of sleep with seemingly no side effects and the converse is also true. I can leave you with one message however and that is to maintain good sleep hygiene, no screens right before bed and regular sleep schedules can help make Monday mornings that bit less dreary.

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