Thesis Diary Day 14: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream.”

I don’t get a lot of sleep of late. Or rather, I don’t get a lot of sleep at night. I’m great at laying awake all night, then sleeping from 5 til 10 am. Which isn’t so great for productivity. I guess it’s a result of stressing out about writing this thesis, while seeing everyone around me already finished or getting there. And having the ultimate PhD final exam luxury that I don’t have: publications. That, and spending too much time on the computer/internet. A constantly stimulated mind does not make for a peaceful night; I spend a lot of time chasing after half-formed thoughts, running around in my head.

It has me thinking though- why do we sleep? This is, in fact, one of the great unsolved mysteries of science. Humans operate on a circadian sleep/wake cycle, and the benefits of this can easily be seen by anyone who has ever had to stay up late, then wake up early (I’m looking at you, parents). During sleep our bodies repair themselves: tissue regeneration and other “maintenance”, strengthening and pruning of connections in the brain (one of the reasons you forget where you put your keys last night). But many species do not sleep at all, and still undergo these rest and regeneration operations. There must be some sort of evolutionary advantage to sleep, otherwise why did we start choosing to become unconscious, making ourselves vulnerable to predators?

There are many scientists trying to prove theories as to the why. Some think that species that became good at hiding from predators evolved the ability to sleep, as it is more effective at making you alert afterwards than never fully resting. Others are more focussed with what happens in the brain when we sleep– we prune connections, clearing out space and getting us ready for another day of mental stimulation. Sleep is also good for brain plasticity, that is, to encourage the ability to make lots of new synaptic connections and enhance the ones we have already made. We do know that sleep is important, and going without sleep can be seen in your genes- they act as if the body is under stress, similar to how our ancestors genes acted when they were preparing themselves for injury (from wild animal attacks, for example). The genes affected activate the immune system, but without anything to fight, it ends up negatively affecting the body, causing strokes and heart disease.

So get some shut-eye, regenerate your brain, and keep your genes in line. I’m off to stay up late and read about sleep disorders (I’m down a rabbit hole now).

For more info about sleep, here is a great article from the BBC.

Image shared by Timothy Krause under a Creative Commons license.

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