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Reasons we enter the mystical realm of sleep

Updated on May 13, 2013

Illustrating the learning theory.

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Learn how napping can increase your score 20 points, and how cancer killing cells are taking a ride through your system while you sleep.

Copyright © 2012


We hated it while we were younger, and now we can’t get enough of it. Gone are the days of running around rambunctiously with crayons in one hand and a juice box in the other. Hello to the days of teenagers sleeping in class and adults living hectic lifestyles where snagging a nap is nearly impossible for the latter group of people. What is this mystical realm called sleep that produces vivid alternate realities and why do we even need it? There are some theories such as the Inactivty theory, the energy conservation theory, restorative theory, and the brain plasticity theory. These are some of the main theories that will be discussed.

Sleep is something we all want, but barely get. Why do we sleep anyway? Scientists actually don’t have a single correct answer to this. There are, however, theories as to why we spend 1/3 of our lives with our eyes shut but one of them is called the Inactivity theory (aka evolutionary theory). This theory states that the need for sleep arose as an evolutionary adaptions from animals. It is essentially a survival technique for them, they would be quiet for long periods of time in the dark, which in turn protected them from predators. This seems to be the reason for hibernation too. Not all animals can travel to warmer climates so they must endure the harsh winter without much food so they conserve energy expenditure by going into a long deep sleep. Sleep duration, then, is determined in each species by the time requirements of eating, the cost-benefit relations between activity and risk, migration needs, care of young, and other factors, a research team and Jerome Siegel, UCLA professor of psychiatry and director of theCenter for Sleep Research said. “ However, unlike hibernation and torpor,” “sleep is rapidly reversible–that is, animals can wake up quickly, a unique mammalian adaptation that allows for a relatively quick response to sensory signals.” Along with Siegels comments here, it has also been shown through studies with animals that animals who have few predators sleep much longer than animals with many predators. This basic theory that these animals had an advantage over active animals directly ties in with the next theory.

The second theory is the Energy conservation theory. This theory states that the main use for sleeping is that it is to conserve an individual's need for energy and food. Respiration slows down as you sleep, along with a host of other processes such as blood pressure dropping, pains diminishing, and your digestive process slowing down. Your metabolism also slows down, by as much as 10 percent. We use a high calorie and energy demand all day that in a scarceful world, sleeping is needed for the body to reduce all needs as to needing it around the clock. Even though body functions slow down, it is interesting to note one thing Siegel explained. He said it is the ability to reduce body and brain metabolism while still allowing a high level of responsiveness to the environment.

“The often cited example is that of a parent arousing at a baby’s whimper but sleeping through a thunderstorm. That dramatizes the ability of the sleeping human brain to continuously process sensory signals and trigger complete awakening to significant stimuli within a few hundred milliseconds.” This statement by him shows a very intriguing aspect of the human conditions that our brains can screen out what is important or not even during sleeping, a simple common noise as thunder, or the cry of a baby. Speaking of bodily functions that occur during sleep, the next theory speaks about the repair aspect of sleeping.

The restorative theory explains how a reason for sleep may have to do with the body’s need to repair itself on all levels. Studies have shown that some of our cognitive problems and memory loss due to sleep deprivation occur because a process known as protein synthesis occurs in the brain when we are asleep. The problem is since no synthesizing is occurring, nerve-cell connections are not occurring properly. Sleeping after a day of learning and acquiring skills helps your brain consolidate them and sort through everything. A study showed that even naps can enhance cognitive benefit. The experiment was 100 volunteers were given a memorization test. The volunteers who took a 100 minute nap scored 20 percentage points higher. Think about that the next time you need to get an important grade. Sleep affects learning by taking the day’s memories and then moving it from the memory forming part of the brain, the hippocampus, to the prefrontal cortex where long term storage occurs. This then frees your hippocampus for more memories. The immune system plays a major role in sleeping because particular proteins and other disease fighting chemicals are increased. Lower amounts of sleep correlate with lower levels of white blood cells. Sleeping even has a role in cancer. A certain cell called Tumor necrosis factor goes through our veins during sleep. It has been shown that people who stay up till 3am showed 1/3 less of these cells the next day and whichever ones remained were decreased in effectiveness. Beauty sleep does actually exist. The cells needed for “beauty sleep” are used during nighttime only and it isn’t possible to get away with it by sleeping during the day, those cells are unable to be used during the daytime.

The brain plasticity theory has a lot to do with the restorative theory of sleep actually and has to do with the way the brain changes and forms itself during sleep. Plasticity is the capacity of the nervous system/brain to change its structure and network. It also focuses on the role of sleep and memory during sleep.

Ever hear the myth that old people need more sleep? There have been studies that showed both sides of the study. A study showed that there was no correlation between age and the amount of sleep needed to function. Adults need an average of 7-9, the only thing that changes is the difficulty of falling asleep. As shown throughout this paper, there are multiple theories abound about the existence of sleep. They are very similar to each other and it is possible that all may apply, but perhaps scientists will discern why we really need it in the coming years.


Which do you believe to be the reason for sleeping?

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