Sleep is a function that humans tend to think of as being “on” or “off”. Either you’re consciousness at your desk, or you’re in bed snoozing.
But researchers now have the data to prove that there’s a far more complex system of sleep that happens in some areas of the brain while people appear to be awake and performing tasks. This could explain the phenomenon of doing easy jobs on “autopilot”, not remembering a morning commute after arriving in the office, or experiencing other bouts of unexplained forgetfulness.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA conducted the study, which implanted electrodes deep into the craniums of epilepsy patients to monitor their brain activity during seizures. Since these patients tended to have the same sleep patterns as non-sufferers, the information collected was far more detailed than the usual, non-invasive scalp EEG used to monitor sleep patients.
The researchers found that while a person appears to be awake and going about their day, part of their brain might actually be in a sleep-like state. That part is “offline” and the person has to make do without it when performing tasks. It may also be what allows people to sleepwalk.
Researchers compare this strange localized sleep to that of dolphins, who are able to rest underwater while some part of their brain stays active enough to remind them to surface for air every so often. You could also think of your brain like a baseball game, according to Yuval Nir, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Each person in the stands might be a cheering fan, but eventually, they’re all going to need to take a little break from the game to grab a beer, or use the bathroom.
And while it may be impossible to stop parts of your brain from cat-napping entirely (frankly, it would be nice to have an excuse ready next time I just can’t remember what I was about to say…), humans do have plenty of control over the sleep they get at night. Study researchers suspect that exhausted people’s brains may be forced to “go offline” and take a period of local sleep in shifts to continue to function throughout the day, so a good night’s slumber may be the key to limiting these episodes. And if you need more motivation to increase your shut-eye time, there are plenty of studies available that indicate that people who don’t get enough sleep age faster, experience a loss of brain power in mid-life and don’t grow as tall as people who are well-rested. All the more reason to get your full 40 winks (or even 50) each night.
Tips on how to game your sleep routine can be found here.