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What happens to our brain when we sleep?


What happens to our brain when we sleep?

Sleep is a conundrum. We all do it every night (or at least should), yet for something that occupies a third of our lives we do not spend anywhere near as long thinking about it as we would anything else that took up that much time. The reason for this is obvious, when we are asleep we are not really aware of what is going on. It is more liked we are switched off... but are we really? When you look at someone sleeping they often do have the appearance that nothing much is going on, that they have been turned off for the night, but then at other moments people are anything but ‘off’. Think of the person who is tossing and turning, pulling the doona off you. Think of the sleepwalker who finds themselves in the wardrobe in the room next door. Think of the individual who is yelling out in their sleep in the middle of the night. Think of the person who is lying in bed, hallucinating that they have some strange apparition lying on their chest. All of this happens while we are asleep, which begs the question... what happens to our brain when we sleep? Here are five crazy things that the brain does while we sleep.

Makes decisions.

You might think that you are switched off when you are lying in bed but in fact when you are asleep you are making decisions. The brain is able to process data and ready itself for upcoming actions while you are asleep, effectively making decisions while you are out to it, according to new research.

The research has just been published in a respected journal called Current Biology. The study discovered that the brain is actually able to process very complex stimuli while people are asleep and is able to then use this information to make decisions when they person is awake. The study got people to decide which category a range of spoken words fitted into, categories that either referred to objects or animals as well as fake words or real words, and were asked to press a button on the right or left side depending on which category they thought the words fitted into. As the task became increasingly easy and almost automatic the subjects were told that they were able to fall asleep if they wanted (they were in a dark room and had been made comfortable). As they drifted off the researchers kept firing words at them and monitoring their brain, they found that even when they were asleep they were still clicking the button for left and right, categorising the words. When they woke up, though, they had no recollection of the words they heard while they were asleep.

“Not only did they process complex information while being completely asleep, but they did it unconsciously,” researchers Thomas Andrillon and Sid Kouider explain, “Our work sheds new light about the brain’s ability to process information while asleep but also while being unconscious.”

Creates and consolidates memories.

Not getting enough sleep at night has been shown to have a significant effect on the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain that is involved in memory creation and consolidation. When you are asleep your brain is actually hard at work making new memories, processing the old ones and making connections between them all. This happens in both REM and non-REM sleep. In other words, when you are asleep you are learning, you are processing new information and making connections between old and new data so that you can put it all together in new and meaningful ways when you are awake. 

Dr. Matthew Walker, a University of California, Berkeley sleep researcher, explains, “We’ve learned that sleep before learning helps prepare your brain for initial formation of memories, and then, sleep after learning is essential to help save and cement that new information into the architecture of the brain, meaning that you’re less likely to forget it.”

That means for anyone with a big exam the next day, the last thing that you want to do is to pull an all night swat mission, as Walker estimates, the amount of new facts you will remember will be around 40 per cent less than if you had got a decent night’s sleep instead, which is the difference between a pass and a fail.

Makes creative connections.

When you are asleep you are also extremely creative, in fact researchers see sleep as a creativity booster. When you are asleep your brain is able to make connections that it would not be able to make when you are awake, allowing you to problem solve and think laterally.

In a study done in 2007, a team at the University of California at Berkeley discovered that sleep is able to help foster what they call ‘remote associates’ or unusual connections in your brain. Sleep is able to help you with Eureka moments when you wake, where you suddenly realise that you have the solution to a problem that has been vexing you. They found that roughly a third of all respondents have had such a moment upon waking, making connections between what may have previously seemed like distantly related issues or overcoming what had been an intractable problem.

Clears out toxins.

Did you know that you are being brainwashed each and every night? Well it is true, though it is nowhere near as nefarious or evil as that sentence may make it sound, because the one doing the brainwashing is you and the outcome is not that you become a mindless slave but rather that your brain is cleared of all the toxins that build up during the day.

A number of studies that have recently been conducted have discovered this incredible important feature of sleep that helps to keep the brain healthy. Researchers at the University of Rochester have found that while we sleep, our brains actually wash out all the damaging molecules that are associated with neurodegeneration. The reason we do this at night is that the space between brain cells actually grows while we are unconscious, allowing the brain to more effectively flush out all the various toxic molecules that built up while we are awake.

“We need sleep," Dr. Nedergaard, the study's lead researcher, told the National Institutes of Health. "It cleans up the brain."

If we do not get enough sleep each night our brain is unable to clear these toxins away and this can have several very concerning implications, including possibly causing a range of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s

Learns and remembers how to perform physical tasks.

When you are asleep your brain is able to place information into its long term memory banks using something called sleep spindles. These sleep spindles are short but powerful bursts of brain wave activity at strong frequencies that happen while we are in REM sleep. They are called sleep spindles because of the spikes on the ECG, not because there is any spindle inside the brain.

One of the major outcomes of this process is that it helps us to store the information connected to motor skills and muscle memory. Things like driving a car, hitting a ball or mastering the art of juggling chainsaws. These all get locked into our brain during these sleep spindles, making them automatic rather than something we have to concentrate on. During REM sleep our brains move these memories from our short term banks across to the motor cortex in the temporal lobe of our brain where they become long term and automatic memories.

"Practice during sleep is essential for later performance," James B. Maas, a sleep scientist at Cornell University, told the American Psychological Association. "If you want to improve your golf game, sleep longer."


What does all of this tell us, apart from the fact that our brains and sleep are both incredible? Well, the obvious conclusion is that sleep is very, very, very, very, very, very very (ok, you get our drift), very important. In fact, as you can see, it is central to almost every aspect of your brain function. That means that if you are not sleeping properly, your brain is not functioning properly. For that reason you need to make sure that you are sleep well each and every night, you need to make sure that your sleep health is excellent so that your brain function is at the top of its game.

If you are not sleeping as well as you could be then you need to remedy this fast before you become a zombie! Lucky for you we have a huge database of articles here that can help you to improve your sleep health so read on and super charge your grey matter!

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