Studying Survival: Why You Should Do Sleep

In my junior year of high school, a brilliant yet dumb idea came over me. I would unlock the deepest, most evolutionarily repressed parts of my brain, and increase my academic performance immeasurably, by never, ever, sleeping. I made it four nights and five days before I started hollering at my cousin, who lives one thousand miles away, to stop scratching at my door at 3 in the morning. I discovered, then, that sleep may be more important than I thought.

In fact, I learned sleep isn’t just one state of mind or activity, either. It’s a cycle. There are three phases of sleep, four, if you count REM Sleep which is categorized on its own. Each subsequent phase is  “deeper” than the last.

Phase One

Most people call this “dozing off.” If you’ve ever partied all night and woken up early the next day for classes, then hit a snag in the middle of your 2 PM physics class where your head rocks back and forth, your eyes feel heavy as lead, and your sense of time gets distorted, you’ve experienced phase one. You are close to consciousness, but not quite fully there.

Phase Two

This is when you slip under, when you become truly unconscious. Here, your body loses its rigidity, and all your muscles relax. There’re myths about professional chefs being able to bake chocolate cakes while asleep, physiologically, they can’t. But, if you tapped them on the shoulder, they’d wake up and tell you the recipe for one without error.

Phase Three

This is known as “deep sleep.” Here, you are harder to wake up, and your brain releases fewer signals. The human brain at this time can almost be categorized as inactive, completely turned off. Here and there your body will tell your lungs to breathe and your heart to beat, but your frontal cortex, occipital lobe, hippocampus, and posterior cortex go almost silent.

Entering the REM stage

And then? Within the span of a couple of minutes, your brain comes to life during REM sleep. Neurotransmitters are flooding into the brain, with serotonin, epinephrine, and/or adrenaline bringing your brain to life. REM sleep is like the fan in your laptop pushed into overdrive as it clears out old junk and organizes all your files into folders. During REM sleep, your brain is like a city with all its lights turned on at once.

REM sleep happens roughly every 70 to 90 minutes. Your first REM cycle will last 10 minutes, your next one longer, and longer. After your REM cycles reach an hour or so in duration, it becomes almost impossible to fall back asleep. Your brain is sorted, and organized, and optimized, to its peak. Your body is healed, muscles strengthened, organs polished up. You are ready to go, performing at the highest level thanks to your brain and its natural reset button.

That is, of course, assuming you slept enough. Without enough REM sleep, you don’t retain memories as well. If you don’t get at least 3 to 4 full cycles, your brain will be messy and disorganized all day, as if caught in the middle of organizing its room, with half the trash on the bed and the other half swept under it. Maybe yesterday it knew where everything was. But now, when the chaos has been half-sorted, and half spread about, your brain won’t be able to find anything you need it to.

If you avoid sleep, your body will weaken, your organs more taxed and tired, and you will have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, coursing through your veins. Without enough sleep, you are a ticking time bomb ready to explode. So next time, get your 7 hours, like the mom friend in your group tells you to, okay?

Additional Resources:

https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/sleep/conditioninfo/rem-sleep
https://www.howsleepworks.com/how_neurological.html https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/sleep/healthy_sleep_atglance.pdf


By Victor Galov

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