Why do we sleep? If you live to a ripe old age, you'll spend a cumulative 30 years of your life asleep. But have you ever really pondered this question?
Scientists are yet to establish a unified theory of sleep, mainly because sleep really is a dark area of research. In fact, it wasn't until the 20th century that scientists discovered the human brain is highly active during sleep.
In the human brain (in fact - in all mammals and birds) sleep has two phases:
Each stage of sleep has its own physiological, neurological and psychological features. They flow together to form whole sleep cycles.
In the late 1960s two scientists, Rechtschaffen and Kales, defined a typical sleep cycle, displaying varying levels of consciousness. It looked a bit like this:
A complete cycle lasts around 90 to 110 minutes. So eight hours of sleep will give you around five of these sleep cycles per night.
Notice how we are in NREM sleep for the most part. Initially, REM sleep only lasts for about 10 minutes at the end of the cycle.
However, as the night goes on, some NREM cycles get shorter and REM sleep increases, which is why you dream most in the mornings. (Dreaming is more common in REM sleep, although it does also occur during NREM sleep.)
Now take a look at the features of a normal sleep cycle:
Your sleep cycles are controlled by the Circadian clock. This is an internal timekeeping device that the human brain uses to control body temperature and release certain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) at the right time.
When your brain releases the neurotransmitter adenosine at night, you begin to feel sleepy and your body temperature falls. Similarly, in the morning when the Circadian alarm bell rings, your brain releases other neurotransmitters to wake you up.
That is why early risers often find it difficult to sleep in. Their bodies have already been stimulated with wake-up juice. The fact that Circadian rhythms exist tells us that regular sleep is key to our survival.
Having covered sleep cycles, we can move on to the functions of sleep. Why do we sleep - spending a third of our lives in the land of nod?
Sleep is a natural state of rest seen in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. But the variation in the amount of sleep required is quite stunning:
Laboratory rats......13 hours
Domestics cats.......12.5 hours
Pilot whales............5.5 hours
Asian elephants.......3 hours
Roe deer.................3 hours
This has inspired some evolutionary theories of sleep. One theory is that animals who are lower in the food chain sleep less - because they are more vulnerable to attack. However, a conflicting theory suggests that sleep protects us from predators, since we are curled up in a quiet place out of harm's way.
However, both theories have gaps. If we are deprived of sleep, our bodies eventually force us to regain some of that lost sleep - even at the risk of attack by a predator. Why do we sleep at such high risk?
Like the evolutionary theories, there are dozens of theories of sleep and most of them can be conveyed in one of four categories:
All day long, we are zipping around in a highly active anabolic state.
Because this requires so much energy, being awake may only be a temporary state. We use this time to feed and reproduce. That's all. So why do we sleep? Simply: to gain relief from this hyperactive state so that we may function normally - both physically and mentally.
This theory is further supported by the fact that certain genes only switch on during sleep. Some of these genes are directly linked with mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.
Sleep also allows us to physically heal our bodies. This is marked by the constant growth and repair of the body's immune and nervous systems, as well as our muscles and bones.
In a study on rats, sleep deprivation actually slowed down the healing process of burns. Besides the immune system, sleep deprivation affects our metabolism (our internal chemical reactions). It may also help us save energy for when we most need it.
However, animals in hibernation actually have to catch up on sleep when they emerge. Simply resting in a dark, quiet place does not fulfill their need for sleep if they don't shut down their conscious brain.
Something critical happens to the mind during sleep. This may hold the key to psychological reasons why we sleep.
Sleep may help the human brain get better organized - by filing away important memories and discarding unwanted information.
~ William Shakespeare
In a study by Turner et al, 40 people were allowed only 26 minutes sleep per night. They were given cognitive tests which showed their working memory deteriorated by 38% over four days. Without REM sleep, they found it much harder to complete memory tasks and solve problems.
Other sleep experiments have shown that procedural memory (your ability to perform certain skills) is dependent on REM sleep. Similarly, declarative memory (your knowledge of facts) relies on getting enough Slow Wave Sleep.
Everybody dreams, every night (even if you don't remember them). Dreams are an expression of our unconscious thoughts and conscious experiences. They are so important that if we are seriously sleep deprived, we actually start to dream while awake.
Dreaming appears to be a by-product of REM sleep. But is it possible that an important part of the reason why we sleep is to dream?
If so, why do we dream?
The functions of sleep are still unfolding. We understand the natural sleep cycles and a number of effects of sleep on the brain and body. However, there is no unifying theory that answers the question "why do we sleep?"
Science has more work to do yet...
For a deeper understanding of the reasons why we sleep, watch this TED lecture by neuroscientist, Russell Foster.
Here's a good question. If a lucid dream is any dream in which you know you're dreaming, then why aren't we always lucid in dreams? Why doesn't it just become the default state of dreaming? Why do we accept our dreams of flying pigs and dinosaurs as an extension of waking life? What is the mechanism for defaulting to non-lucid dreams? Intriguingly, scientists have approached this question from three different angles./p>
What do blind people dream about? Can they "see" in their dreams? Take a look at scientific studies into the dreams of the blind, colorblind, and black-and-white dreamers. In 1999, dream researchers at the University of Hartford analyzed 372 dreams of 15 blind people. They found that both the congenitally blind and those who went blind before five years old did not have any visual dreams at all. That's because our dreams are made up of real world experiences and our innermost thoughts, anxieties and desires. So for someone who has never perceived images or light (or can't remember any) their dreams simply can't manifest visually.
Not long ago, scientists at Frankfurt University discovered how to produce lucid dreams with electronic stimulation. It was a world first. And - astonishingly - it worked in non-lucid dreamers 77% of the time. Now you can buy the same technology for yourself. The foc.us V2 - which delivers the proven optimum 40 Hz transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) - was originally developed to increase working memory in video gamers and improve sleep.
As technology continues to move us towards more immersive dreamlike experiences, one can only wonder what digital wonders lay just beyond the horizon of tomorrow. We may also question just how the future of virtual reality will impact the study and practice of lucid dreaming. Are we, perhaps, the last generation to whom lucid dreaming will maintain an appeal?
Jeremiah Morelli is a whimsical fantasy artist and visual storyteller. He places conceptual fairytale creatures in vivid dreamscapes to capture the imagination. He's also a school teacher, and amazingly finds the time and motivation to create this huge gallery of artwork. Such light and dark fairytale paintings make beautiful places to visit in your lucid dreams.
Experts agree that everyone is capable of having lucid dreams. Dreaming itself is a normal function of the mind. We all dream every night, even if we don't remember. And we all achieve conscious awareness while awake every single day. So what does it mean to combine these states? Why, the amazing ability to have conscious - or lucid - dreams. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So why do I keep hearing from people who say they can't achieve their first lucid dream?