Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Meeting Your States of Consciousness
Part I: Sleep
What do Theodore Roosevelt, Gautama Buddha, and Garfield the Cat all have in common? What are psychedelics, and how does their effect on the human brain relate to sleep and contemplation? Investigate these questions with us through a three-part series and get acquainted with your different states of consciousness along the way.
I would guess that all of us, as students, have carved away at a novel’s worth of study guides for an exam, or swum through miles of sources to make that perfect project report, and faced that pivotal question at the end of the night: Should I sleep, or stay up all night?
If I had really been skirting a deadline, then I might be relieved that I had taken the night to finish my work—but most times the Z’s are what lead me to A’s, and not just in my academics.
... I sleep after a day’s work on a class project, and I wake up with a Eureka! idea on how to weld all my ideas together and make the presentation shine.
... I sleep after a hard workout, and I wake up with a steely resolve and plenty of energy.
... I sleep after a disagreement with a friend, and I wake up with a renewed sense of belonging and a desire to make things right.
How should we characterize sleep if I can spend a few hours dreaming of flying among the seagulls of Narragansett Town Beach, and wake up with answers to yesterday’s problems?
Let’s review some words of wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States:
On April 10, 1899, then just the governor of New York, Teddy Roosevelt gave his speech on the “strenuous life.” He says (paraphrased, emphasis mine):
Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past. If the freedom thus purchased is used aright, and a man still does actual work, he shows he deserves his good fortune. But if he treats this period of freedom from the need of actual labor as a period not of preparation, but of mere enjoyment … he surely unfits himself to hold his own with his fellows if the need to do so should again arise.
Teddy reflects here on the advantageous position that the United States found itself in at the turn of the century: world leadership in agricultural and manufacturing production, newly resettled lands, and rare peace after the end of the American Civil and Spanish-American wars. He believed that Americans would sit on their laurels, and so he charged them to consider their peaceful, prosperous hour as one of preparation for later work—if not for manual labor, then for science, art, and literature.
For our brains, every snooze is like the turn-of-the-century United States! The triumphs and struggles of the day are taken in, recognized, and used to prepare for the coming day. Sleep isn’t rest; it’s work. It’s just not conscious work. During NREM sleep, the stage that precedes dreaming, our brain generates “sleep spindles,” or short, intense bursts of electrical activity which tend to travel between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. These pulses represent the transformation of short-term memories from the hippocampus into long-term memories for the prefrontal cortex—like how we might browse the Internet to research for a school project:
Open a few dozen webpages
(short term memories enter the hippocampus),
take notes on pages that strengthen the project thesis
(sleep spindles carry memories to the prefrontal cortex),
and then start drafting the essay to spy any gaps in the thesis
(long-term memories are created, leaving the hippocampus fresh for further learning).
The prefrontal cortex is also recoupled with the amygdala, a component of our emotional processing center, so the two can work together to dilute the negative content of our memories and keep our emotional expression during the day in a balanced state.
In the rest of the brain and in the entire body, cells work to recycle metabolic waste—as without that maintenance, we would wake up achy and groggy. Keep in mind that the physically restorative sleep spindles surge in the latter phases of NREM sleep, which really only activate in the last two hours of an eight-hour slumber—less, and you lose the benefits. Fittingly, these phases are also when our procedural memories—the "muscle memory" that lets you pull of a hat trick in hockey, or ride a bicycle—are formally encoded, whereas the first NREM phases are for declarative memories, like your first time reading the Sprout and STEM blog, or how many degrees are in a pentagon.
Without sleep, we lose our education, we lose our temper, and we fill up with (metabolic) trash—so read this article again tonight, and then go get some good Z's!