Humans spend about a third of their lifespan sleeping. Scientists and specifically sleep researchers spent years looking for the one, most significant function of sleep. Instead of one, they have found many and continue to research the impact of sleep and physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Emotional regulation and improved learning are the two most significant functions of sleep, explained below.
When we sleep, the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is strengthened and restored. On the other hand, sleep deprivation weakens that connection, thus preventing the prefrontal cortex from regulating the emotional responses, which are triggered by the amygdala and other deep brain parts. Therefore, the prefrontal cortex serves as the leash on our emotional responses to our surrounding circumstances and interactions. Controlling emotional and social responses is important for maintaining and growing relationships, sleep deprivation could significantly harm our social wellbeing. Furthermore, sleep allows us to more accurately understand and read the emotions of other people, thus improving our responses and interactions with others.
Sleep acts as overnight therapy, as during REM sleep, the brain reflects upon and processes emotional and challenging memories through dreams. That way, after a night of dreams that one may or may not remember, any painful memories and experiences from the day before will have suddenly began to feel better, having been better processed overnight in a stress free environment without triggering the stress neuro-chemicals that would otherwise be triggered during the day.
During non-REM sleep, the brain is able to transport information that is learned from the short memory storage site in the hippocampus to the higher processing and longer term memory site in the prefrontal cortex. This is made possible by the sleep spindles, which are short bursts of electrical activity that make the information transfer from short to long term memory possible. Nevertheless, sleep is important not only before learning but after learning, in order to encode, process, and adequately store the learned information. Research shows that not only does sleep help store information learned but also cross-connect different pieces of information together.
It is time for society to start paying attention to our sleeping patterns. Especially within highly productive communities of high school or college students or employees with long working hours, lack of sleep is almost a badge of honor, representing hard work and effort. This, however, is more harmful than we might perceive it as, and certainly less productive long term. Sleep researchers now consider us as a society with sleep where smoking was 50 years ago. Therefore, if you are sleeping 8 hours or less per night, this might be the time to observe more closely what keeps you awake and how you can shift your schedule in order to maximize the benefits from getting a good night’s sleep.