Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Rethinking our sleep cycle

Most of us certainly know this. We are lying in bed, we are tired,but we are unable to go to sleep. We look at the clock and realise that we only have very few hours of sleep left, which makes it even more difficult to fall asleep. But we need eight hours of good sleep in order to perform well the next day, don’t we?

A lot of research is currently challenging this notion. Many research findings point to the fact that maybe we don’t need eight hours of good sleep in a row in order feel wide awake the next day and to be able to perform well.

Author Jessa Gamble looked at our natural sleep cycles. She reports that when people are living without any artificial light at all, they sleep twice every night, from 8 p.m. till midnight and from 2 a.m. till sunrise. In between, they have some sort of meditative quiet. In a TED Talk, she explains our natural sleep cycle in more detail.


David F. Dinges, Hans P. A.Van Dongen and Daniel J. Mollicone from the University of Pennsylvania came to a similar conclusion: In their experiment, sleep efficiency only depended on the total time in bed. How the sleep was divided among nocturnal anchor sleep and diurnal nap sleep periods did not make a difference. This study was published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

In an article in the New York Times, author David K. Randall outlines a few more studies on the beneficial effects of short naps. David F. Dinges found a nap of as few as 24 minutes to improve study participants’ cognitive performance. Simon Durrant from the University of Lincoln showed that the amount of deep sleep participants got during his study was related to their performance at recalling melodic tones. Sara E. Alger, Hiuyan Lau and William Fishbein from New York City University demonstrated that people who had little naps performed better at identifying connections between objects than the control group that did not nap.

It is a well-known fact that our brain uses our sleep to consolidate our memory. Psychiatrist Robert Strickgold from Harvard Medical School goes even one step further and proposes that our brain decides which memories to keep and which to toss during our sleep and even during naps that include deep sleep.

In a previous post, we already  reported that our brain needs a nap in the early afternoon. In a short video, researcher John Medina demonstrates why.

The key message here is that eight hour sleep cycles might work for some, but not for all of us. For those who are not able to sleep eight hours in a row, it might make sense to find out what their individual sleep cycle is. Maybe they can take a nap after the lunch break. Or maybe they can at least stop worrying when they wake up at midnight because waking up at this time seems to be a natural process. And most of us certainly know that putting ourselves under pressure when we are unable to go to sleep does not help. Instead, use the flexibility we often have nowadays to test out different sleep cycles and find out the one that works for you.

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