It helps your long-term memory?
I know that sleep isn’t the sexiest of topics. I have blogs that have been a lot more exciting. That being said though, sleep is one of the most important things we do each day and it is one of the least understood things in life. Research indicates that the brain minimizes clutter and maximizes memory with sleep. That being said, here’s a factoid about sleep that might surprise you:
We really don’t know why we sleep.
I know you are no doubt yelling that we sleep because our bodies insist on it; all of us know we require rest for our survival. But no one has yet discovered the why of sleep, to understand the physiological purpose rest serves.
Sleeping is one of our most elemental functions. It is essential to life, and yet the purpose of sleep remains a bit of a mystery. That’s why this news is so exciting to me as a coach, and potentially important. A study found a direct link between sleep and the creation of long-term memories. Interesting, huh?
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine discovered a cluster of cells in the brain of fruit flies that control sleeping. By manipulating those cells, scientists were able to establish long-term memories in fruit flies by controlling their sleeping habits. How did they do that, you ask?
First, the researchers bred genetically modified fruit flies to sleep on demand. Using their ability to control the fruit flies’ sleep habits, the scientists tested the insects’ ability to learn—and retain—information. Here’s what they did, and what they noticed:
- As a test of learning, researchers exposed male fruit flies to other male flies that had been engineered to smell like female fruit flies. There’s that sense of smell again; see my earlier blog on smell.
- After a few unsuccessful mating attempts, the flies learned not to court these female-in-disguise flies.
- Without sleep, the fruit flies retained this knowledge of the pretend-female flies for a short period of time, amounting to a few hours and then behaved as if they had forgotten what they learned.
- Scientists put their fruit fly subjects to sleep after the mating training. With sleep, the fruit flies were able to retain the information for several days. Sleep alone enabled the fruit flies to convert short-term knowledge into long-term memory, saving them from frustrating mating moments.
We’ve all known since grade school that there is a relationship between sleep, memory, and learning. You don’t have to be a scientist to have a sense of this. Think about your typical state of mind—and your inclination to retain new information—at the end of a long, busy day. How open you were when you began the day as compared to day’s end. The science behind your end-of-day brain fatigue is also what the results of this research appear to confirm, i.e., a theory called synaptic homeostasis.
Like all animals, fruit flies included, our brains are engaged in processing information every moment we’re awake. A key component of this process are the synapses in our brains. Synapses create communication pathways in the brain that enable us to retain information.
The theory of synaptic homeostasis says that sleep functions like a kind of filter, helping you weed out and relax the synapses you develop over the course of a day. That way, you can start fresh the next day. Our brains apparently use sleep as the time to determine what information should be discarded, and what information is useful enough that it should be stored in our long-term memories.
In their fruit fly subjects, researchers observed some other important behavior:
- Flies in stimulating, learning-rich environments created more synapses than flies kept in isolation.
- During sleep, their synapses were reduced in size and number, essentially clearing out the clutter in the brain to prepare for another round of learning.
So, what are the implications for us regular folk? Finding a sleep-inducing switch for our brains sounds a bit like science fiction, and it’s pretty safe to say we’re a long way away from this. But this is a healthy step toward developing an answer to that mysterious question of why we sleep.
The more we understand about the underlying reasons for sleep, the better we’ll be able to explore and develop safe, natural solutions to sleep problems, and in turn, our mental health.
Now I think I will go take a nap.
So, what do you think? How are you sleeping these days?
If you think your sleep needs some improvement, give me a call so we can talk about it… schedule a time for a free call and tell me about it.
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