OPINION: THIS FIRST APPEARED ON PEEPEA.COM
Most of us will spend at least 30 years of our lives asleep. That’s seems quite a hefty sacrifice of our time to simply lie dormant, blind and dumb to the world around us. I, personally, dread the natural process and have so for years. It needn’t be dramatised though, it’s nothing as inescapable as insomnia; I get to sleep in my own way. There are a few things though that help the most: reading a book, having my lights low and making sure I’m nice and warm.
But from my innumerable nights lying awake, waiting for sleep, I’ve found that there is one thing more detrimental to a sound doze than anything else, and that’s being plugged in. Whether it’s our laptops on our legs, a television buzzing in the corner, or our iPhones by our pillow: we are perpetually switched on and hooked up. Our generation brandishes our gadgets like beacons, its glow warding off sleep and invading the night. With our techno-toys always by our sides, we are constantly reminded that while we sleep, the world rages on. And little by little, our generation sacrifices our slumber to stay in the loop.
What has resulted in the twenty-first century, is a generation of the sleep depraved. According to the National Sleep Foundation, over 85% of our generation’s teens and young adults admit to often sleeping less than 5-6 hours per night. Whereas 8-9 hours are essential for healthy growth.
This common disrespect for sleep seems to stem from the misconception that we sleep only because our brains need rest. And we believe that most nights we can ‘fight through it’. Whereas, surprising, quite the opposite is true. While we sleep, the brain uses close to the same amount of energy than it does awake. There are even areas of the brain which are more active while you sleep, coming alive at night in a flurry of organised activity.
So why exactly do we sleep? Well, sleep isn’t a singular property of the brain, but rather the confluence of many different interactions. One major influence on our sleep is our circadian rhythm, or, in other terms, our natural ‘body clock’. Many different biological functions of our bodies are synchronised with our innate body clock, and it’s our cyclic exposure to light and darkness with governs it.
When we wake up and our eyes are touched by that first morning light, electrical currents are sent up into a variety of areas in the brain. One particular area, called the hypothalamus, receives signals from our eyes to send projections down into the brainstem, which then washes the cortex (the wrinkly surface area) with innumerable neurotransmitters that keep us awake – and essentially providing us with what we’d call our ‘consciousness’.
The same goes for when it grows dark – we aren’t just coincidentally tired; our bodies are chemically shutting us down in preparation for sleep. In dim light, the pineal gland secretes melatonin into the bloodstream, a hormone which regulates when you get sleepy, as well as an array biological functions.
But our generation doesn’t submit to natural influences. We take our iPhones to bed, or we sit up for hours on our laptops, we reject sleep and stay up far into the night. We barrage our eyes with artificial light, we confuse our brains and send it mixed signals. We deprive ourselves of the hours we need to be sleep, disrupting an innate system which over millennia has developed to maintain our physical wellbeing.
A leading theory on the importance of sleep is that it’s essential for memory consolidation. This means that while we sleep the mind is filtering itself; strengthening important synaptic connections we need, while ‘pruning’ the weaker ones we don’t. So that when we wake up, our minds aren’t overwhelmed by irrelevant memories.
Another reason is to maintain our capacity for creative thinking and critical judgement. Without proper sleep, the neurons in our frontal lobe– an area responsible for language and creativity – perform badly. In case studies where sleep-deprived subjects are asked to finish a sentence, many fall back on unimaginative words and cliché phrases.
Without sleep, our ability to retain information and learn new tasks is also smashed. We’re subject to impulsivity and poor judgement, and factors such as these have been linked to sleep-related disasters such as Chernobyl and the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
And if you’re a uni-student, like myself, than your sleep deprivation has opened you up to the world of addiction. You’re probably like me and depend on coffee like its oxygen. Our youth uses caffeine and nicotine to create artificial wakefulness, and we go even further with ecstasy and methamphetamine to party through the night. Then when we turn to bed, and our minds are too wired to sleep, we force it into a mimicked sleep with depressants like alcohol, weed and sleeping pills.
Without sleep the body can’t perform. White blood cells drop in production, and the ones already in circulation lose their proficiency. Your immune system is weakened and your metabolising process slows, increasing your chance of obesity and disease.
In this modern time of technology, when the internet is more accessible that milk bars, it seems we’re beginning to forget what life is like without it. For centuries we took no lantern or fire with us to bed, yet now we curl up in bed staring idly into garish screens. We deprive ourselves of sleep, and we don’t fully comprehend that it effects more than just how we feel, it effects who we are. It effects our capacity to learn, to think and to accomplish the things that we want to do. A well-slept life might involve more years in bed in the long-run, but it means your time lived isn’t wasted.