Are we getting enough sleep?

We’re all told, often enough you’d think, that we need to get a good night’s sleep. It’s good advice for your general health, and we all know we can feel the effects if we’ve short changed ourselves on the sleep front for even a few days. The effects include a generally spaced-out feeling, grogginess, an inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, looking ‘under the weather’, and an all round feeling that if we don’t get a good night’s sleep soon, then something’s got to give.

woman sleeping peacefully

Adequate sleep is important for the brain
to do its work properly

The problem is, there’s never been any really definite and precise scientific evidence on the subject of are we getting enough sleep¬†or, for that matter, why it’s so important. There have been theories that we somehow regenerate during sleep, and that our brains need some quiet time in which to organise all the various sensory input that bombards it during the waking hours, and various other ideas.

Some of these ideas might account for dreams; maybe they are just a rehash of the day’s events, in various, sometimes fantastical form, that occur during the re-organisation process that takes place during sleep. The truth is, scientists have never been able to really find out much about the true nature of sleep, although extensive sleep studies have taken place over the years.

Research at Michigan State University

We might have crept a step closer due to a sleep study by Michigan State University researchers recently. It was reported in ScienceDaily,¬†September 27, 2011, and the findings of the study appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The researchers speculate that they may in fact be seeing evidence of a separate form of memory during sleep, perhaps some distinct memory system that is involved with the reorganisation of the day’s events.

Kimberly Fenn, assistant professor of psychology and lead researcher on the project said,

“There is substantial evidence that during sleep, your brain is processing information without your awareness, and this ability may contribute to memory in a waking state”.

So, perhaps it’s the case that this discrete memory system may be charged with making a sort of daily backup, rather like a computer system makes regular daily data backups. And maybe the work of the night time memory is providing not just a data backup, but playing a memory reinforcement role.

Sleep learning?

It may in fact mean we are, in effect, learning while we sleep. It looks like we may be processing information and, perhaps, deriving benefit from it, further than any already made during wakefulness. We may even be coming to decisions while we sleep, for all we know, which would go along with the old idea of having a nagging problem and deciding to ‘sleep on it’. I think we’ve all experienced times when a good night’s sleep has resulted in us waking up not only feeling refreshed, but with the answer to something that’s long been puzzling us.

Fenn said she thinks this separate sort of memory isn’t being taken into account by intelligence tests and aptitude tests, and varies wildly from one individual to another. While a good night’s sleep for one person might result in very little change in our ‘normal’ memory, it might result in a dramatic increase in memory for someone else.

Calm down, switch off … and relax!

One thing this study seems to indicate is that we could all do with giving a bit more attention to getting plenty of sleep. Research shows that people are tending to get less sleep year on year. With such hectic lifestyles, and so many intrusions to deal with (emails, texting, social networking, and so on), we tend to be reachable 24 hours a day, wherever we are, and living in a continuously ‘switched on’ state.

Maybe we should be a bit more protective of our sleeping arrangements, and less forgiving of anything that interferes with them.

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