The Science of Sleep and The Mysteries of Dreams

by Ines Wynn


Scientists have pretty well figured out the mechanics involved in the process of sleep and dreams. At the same time they have uncovered some weird and bizarre sleep- and dream-time behaviours.

We all endure a sleepless night now and then; some of us more often than the rest. It comes with a busy, stressful life style, the problems and toils of our everyday existence. For most people it is a temporary nuisance at best; for others it turns into a cycle of sleep deprivation and that’s when caution is advised.

When people say we cannot make up for lost sleep, they state a true fact. When we’re not getting enough sleep something happens in our brains: a significant amount of neurons -the cells that transmit nerve impulses- are destroyed and millions of synaptic connections -the links between neurons that play a huge role in memory formation- are cut. On a sustained basis the damage can be irreversible, even when we recover the sleep.

There are sound reasons the medical establishment encourages a minimum of 8 hours sleep for the average adult. Sleeping less than that has been linked to a rise in depression, anxiety and psychotic episodes. Mood swings, slow metabolism and an increased appetite for junk foods have also been noted. A poor sleeping pattern disrupts your vital functions and affects your immune system, heart function and sex drive. It can lead to higher cancer risks and other physical or neurological conditions.

Other results that have been observed from poor sleeping patterns are weird and bizarre behaviours exhibited during sleep, called parasomnias by scientists. Apparently some 10% of the population suffers from these.They are caused by extensive use of sleeping pills and/or antidepressants or going to sleep stressed or overexcited. Sleep-talking and sleepwalking are familiar. Some of you have maybe also experienced the sense of falling when newly asleep, or being rudely awakened by a loud bang or noise which is only present in your head. It’s called exploding head syndrome. Ever heard of hypnic jerk? That’s when you wake up with a sudden jolt. Other sleeptime behaviours are a bit odder. Have you heard of someone habitually sleep-eating? And this is not just going down to the kitchen and grabbing a snack or something to eat out of the fridge. Some people have been known to prepare entire meals while ostensibly asleep. Obviously this is a bit more serious as it can lead to some dangerous situations involving knives, gas stoves etc. Another potentially dangerous parasomnia is physically acting out or actively participating in a particularly vivid dream. Say you dream you are Superman and can scale the walls to rescue your beloved; or you dream you are being attacked by a robber and start defending yourself, even counter attacking. Or you need to lunge for that Frisbee before it falls to the ground. Injuries sustained while suffering this type of parasomnia to the dreamer or bed partner have been all too real.

It’s obvious we should try and get enough quality sleep. Many people claim they can do with much less and be fully functional. The POTUS claims he can do with anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 or 4 hours sleep a night. Other famous catnappers are inventor Nikola Tesla with 2 hours of sleep per night and US President Thomas Jefferson; astronomer Isaac Newton with 3-4 hours. Voltaire, Napoleon and Winston Churchill made do with 4 hours. Many successful entrepreneurs claim they do best on reduced sleep. There are also those who practice polyphasic sleep like Thomas Edison who just napped 20 minutes every 3 hours throughout the day and night. Leonardo Da Vinci slept for 20 minutes to 2 hours several times a day. Inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller reportedly slept for just 30 minutes every 6 hours. WordPress founder Matt Mullenberg says he naps 40 minutes 6 times with 2.5 hours between naps.

Lest you think it is a mark of genius to sleep very little, rest assured that is not the case. Einstein needed 10 hours a night and still managed few catnaps throughout the day. Famed investor Warren Buffet must have 8 hours worth of ZZs, as does Bill Gates. Singer Mariah Carey claims she has to sleep 15 hours to be optimally functional. She also says she cannot sleep unless some 20 humidifiers are running full blast in her sleeping quarters.

Other celebrities admit to weird sleeping patterns. Olympic swimmer Marc Phelps sleeps in a special chamber with a constant air pressure equivalent to that of 8.500ft (2590 metres) altitude. Tom Cruise sleeps in a hermetic, totally sound-proof room.

If you are part of that world of habitual or even occasional insomniacs, here are a few bits of advice to help you get some quality sleep:

  • Understand your circadian rhythms and establish a regular sleeping schedule around it by going to bed at a set time and avoiding activities that excite your brain or emotions.
  • Surround yourself with a dark, soothing environment. This means no TV, phone or tablet. Also keep your bedroom at a cooler temperature of 20C.
  • Have a bedtime ritual to prepare for a relaxing sleep: a nice hot bath, some soothing music, a bit of light reading, some yoga exercises.
  • Avoid junk food and sugar. Have a herbal tea instead.
  • Vitamin D supplements are recommended to raise the quality of your sleep.
  • Relax by releasing your hectic mind and meandering thoughts
  • Regular exercise is beneficial and conducive to good sleep
  • A daytime nap is Ok but keep it to no more than 30 minutes

If insomnia still lingers you can consult Sleep Junkies Worldwide, a FaceBook group dispensing advice and sympathy to insomniacs.

Wishing you a restful sleep tonight!