The clocks go back an hour Saturday night (Nov. 2) and we all get an extra hour of sleep. Best take advantage of it — it’s the doctor’s orders.
“Especially those on a strict diet and maybe don’t get enough sleep regularly, that extra hour just might make the difference, but it also depends what they did that day whether it’s going to have an impact on performance or not,” said Dr. Stuart Fogel. “But, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get an extra hour of sleep.”
Fogel is leading research currently going on at Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute that is looking into the primary function of sleep.
In other words, why do we need shuteye every night?
Fogel’s theory on why we sleep is that it helps memory consolidation, meaning if you want to retain new memories a solid slumber is key.
“When we learn something during that day, it’s not fully formed and it could be easily forgotten or something could interfere with that memory,” Fogel said, adding there are other aspects of sleep to help your mind and body, but he believes memory is the number one reason for doing something the average human does for one-third of his or her life. “The process of consolidation is transforming that newly formed fragile memory into an enduring and lasting memory trace that is integrated with existing knowledge and easier to retrieve.”
The question of why we sleep isn’t new and has been pondered throughout history.
The technology looking into sleep is fresh though.
Fogel is hooking up 32 electrodes to sleep subjects and then watches their brain, muscle and respiratory activities using an electroencephalography (EEG) to send information to computers in another room. Up to three subjects can be monitored at a time.
Sometimes the researchers even deprive the subjects of sleep to see how the body acts to the lack of shuteye.
The student subjects sleep in a room just big enough for a single-sized bed and a small desk to remind them of the comforts of the school’s residences.
“The technology we have access to is definitely permitting us to really push the boundaries of the kind of questions that we can ask,” Fogel said, adding REM (rapid eye movement) sleep was only discovered about 60 years ago. “There’s a very strong drive for sleep and we need to understand why it is that the brain hungers for sleep as much as it does.”
Sleep spindles are bursts of oscillatory brain activity during non-REM sleep. That form of shuteye makes about 60 percent of our sleeping, said Fogel.
Non-REM used to be called “filler sleep”, but the lead researcher prefers to refer to it as “quiet sleep.”
“I’m not really fond of that term because it indicates it's not really good for anything,” Fogel said. “In fact, we’ve found that it’s very important for memory and also cognitive abilities such as IQ, GPA and measures like that.”
The researches can detect sleep spindles using the EEG and can learn things like the difference between a hockey player and a politician, for example.
According to the Brain and Mind Institutes’ research, the more sleep spindles occurring in someone the higher their ability is to perform procedural types of operations like visual-spatial abilities, decoding abilities and object manipulation.
“These more hands-on skill things that you practice seem to be related to these sleep spindles as oppose to verbal types of abilities, like reading, understanding and comprehending and reciting the things that you learned by rote,” Fogel said.
The research is even helping people feel less guilty for their morning siestas. Don’t let it get carried away, though.
According to Fogel, short daytime naps tend to be more beneficial than long ones.
“We’ve done several napping studies, and so has other groups, that have shown as much of a short daytime nap, even 20 minutes, can serve almost the same function of eight hours of sleep in terms of enhancing memory,” Fogel said. “It depends on the particular type of state of sleep that you get and the type of learning that has occurred, but certainly naps have a similar function.”
He added the recommended eight hours of sleep a night isn’t ideal for everyone. Some people can go down to five or six hours and have similar results to someone sleeping longer.
So, naps are good and an extra hour of rest can help. Just make sure not to “accidentally” set your clock back a few hours Saturday.
“What can happen is that just like overeating then you’ve stuffed yourself and there will be a lower drive for it later on,” Fogel said. “You wouldn’t be able to keep up that heavy diet of sleep from night to night and your brain will regulate that back.”