Sleep. We all do it. Some people sleep more than half their life away. Some people sleep just a few hours. Some people sleep in large blocks of time. Some people sleep only a couple of hours at a time. When we are deprived of sleep, our bodies will force us to eventually make up for it. Typically, in sleep we assume a passive physical state and lose awareness of the exterior world. We may remain conscious, such as of dreams or an out of body state, or we may know we were asleep only by waking up and realizing time has passed without any memory of the exterior or the interior worlds. Some people wake up fully cognizant of the physical world around them. Others can take hours to become fully attuned to the physical world.
I've been fascinated by sleep for a long time. It began because sleep seemed a horrible waste of time, but over the years I found that it wasn't the lack of interaction with the physical world I missed, but the loss of consciousness that sleep normally entails. I'm rather surprised that sleep isn't called the little death, rather than what the phrase is usually applied to.
This is the first in a series of three articles on why we sleep, and how we can help ourselves get the most out of sleep. I'll be publishing these articles over the next three Wednesdays (Eastern time).
Sleep From the Physical Viewpoint
No one really knows why we sleep. Science doesn't. There have been several physical theories put forward
- Sleep serves a protective function, taking you out of circulation while predators roam.
- Sleep serves a restorative process, allowing metabolic damage done during waking hours to be repaired.
- Sleep conserves energy. Smaller animals and predators seem to sleep more.
- Sleep aids in brain development. Infants sleep much more than adults.
- Sleep allows us to dream.
- Sleep serves to consolidate memory.
The first item in these lists I throw out right away. It's just plain stupid. Yes, almost all animals have predators, but it's nonsense to think losing awareness of the physical world is good protection from them, even if you're in a hidey-hole. Think ostrich hiding its head in the sand.
The second and third items make some sense. As we interact with the world, we burn physical energy and metabolic processes cause toxins to build up faster than our bodies can get rid of them. Sleep allows the body's restorative processes to catch up.
The item about babies also make sense. Babies sleep much more than adults, and their brains are developing faster. Contrary to popular opinion, we do continue to develop neurons throughout life, but most brain development is through the growth of connections between the neurons. Much of this takes place in infancy and childhood.
The item about dreaming also makes sense. Most, if not all of our dreaming is done while we are asleep. Everyone dreams. We may not remember our dream, but we have several every night. If they weren't necessary, we wouldn't have them
The last item is iffy. Some research shows that dreams help consolidate memory, while other research doesn't show it. Plus, mammals that have better memories tend to be larger. Larger animals tend to sleep less. You would think that if memory was improved by dreaming then animals with better memories would sleep more.
Sleep From the Viewpoint of Consciousness
If you come here much you know I believe we are consciousness manifesting in a material world. Consciousness comes first, then the mind and body. Not the body, then mind, then consciousness. Our minds and our bodies are the tools we use to manipulate in this world. From this point of view there are at least three worlds in which we exist
- The physical world
- The psychological world
- The world of consciousness
The next article in this series will look at sleep from this viewpoint.