BY MARY BEST
A recent article in National Geographic sheds light on the science — and mysteries — of sleep.
“Nearly every night of our lives, we undergo a startLing metamorphosis,” writes Michael Finkel about sleep in the August issue of National Geographic. The article, “Want to Fall Asleep? Read This Story,” explains “what a healthy night’s sleep looks like” and details the stages and steps we take on our nightly journey called slumber. While the piece is of interest to a general audience, it should be on the reading list of sleep products professionals. Check out these highlights:
- Fighting sleep: Even though countless scientific studies have shown how critical sleep is to our physical and mental health, we are suffering from an epidemic of sleep deprivation. “In our restless floodlit society, we often think of sleep as an adversary,” Finkel writes. Recent culprits? Electric lights, especially computers and smartphones.
- Making memories: When we begin to fall asleep, we enter the first two stages of sleep. This is when our brains switch from collecting information to processing it. “As we fall asleep, our brain stays active and fires into its editing process — deciding which memories to keep and which ones to toss,” he says. But, he adds, the brain isn’t selective about the stimuli it logs. “Sleep reinforces memory so powerfully that it might be best if exhausted soldiers returning from harrowing missions did not go directly to bed.”
- Sleeping like the dead: During stages three and four, “we enter a deep, coma-like sleep that is as essential to our brain as food is to our body,” Finkel notes. “It’s a time for physiological housekeeping.” This level of sleep helps maintain a healthy immune system and reduces the risk of suffering from dementia. But while your brain is in restorative mode, your body is fully relaxed, with minimal mental activity and typically no dreams.
- Wildest dreams: The final stage is REM sleep, when dreams are the most vivid. “Every time we experience REM sleep, we literally go mad,” Finkel says. “Dreaming, some sleep scientists say, is a psychotic state — we fully believe that we see what is not there, and we accept that time, location, and people can morph and disappear.” Fortunately, while the “virtual-reality machine” is playing in our heads, our bodies essentially are paralyzed.
I recommend taking a few minutes to read this story and check out the photography and artwork. It’s one of the most informative articles about sleep I’ve ever read. (And I’ve read quite a few — as I’m sure you have.) It’s available here.