Day 204: Russell Foster- Why do we sleep?

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” “Money never sleeps.” “Sleep is for wimps.” Sound familiar? In this TED talk, neuroscientist Russell Foster explains why sleep is such an important part of our daily lives. And since we’ll spend an average of a third of our lives asleep, it may be useful to understand this.
Some areas of the brain are more active in the sleeping state than where you’re awake. Sleep arises from a network of complicated interactions between parts of the brain. But why do we sleep?
There are three main ideas, which Foster outlines here. Firstly, is that of restoration. This explanation goes back to Aristotle’s times. It’s currently back in fashion as genes have been found which are solely used for restoration and metabolic pathways. Energy conservation may also be intuitive. However, the energy-saving of sleeping versus doing very little is probably only about 110 calories a night. The third idea is brain processing and memory consolidation. If individuals are sleep deprived, their ability to learn a task is diminished. Sleeping at night enhances our creativity.
The details may vary on which of these is most important, however the fact that sleep is necessary remains the same. Foster asks the audience to assess if they get enough sleep. The symptoms of deprivation are pretty obvious; irritability, weight gain, stress. The side effects can range from mental illness to dangerous behaviours like falling asleep at the wheel.
Foster’s latest project involves the study of sleep disruption as an early warning signal for mental disorders. Understanding the neuroscience of sleep may offer an insight into how such illnesses may be treated. Firstly, we need to change our attitudes towards sleep. In the words of fantasy writer Jim Butcher, “Sleep is God. Go worship.”


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