Wide Awake Are You?
Sleep is one thing we all need, and which many of us feel we never get enough of.
We start out as babies, sleeping most of the time, then turn into small children that our parents can't get to bed, then back into teenagers that they can't get up. In our older years, we tend not to sleep as much, because those who are retired, are not dealing with the same types of physical or mental stresses as a working person with young family responsibilities.
Even some animals are big on sleep. The sloth, armadillo and opossum, sleep through 80% of their lives, whereas the "eight hours a night" formula says that Man sleeps away 33% of his. Bears, who one might suspect sleep more than that during hibernation, are not actually sleeping. They are in a deep period of rest, but it is not continuous, and they have been known to rise and stretch a few times over the cold months.
But what happens when we don't get enough sleep? The brain begins to wander off track, and is unable to follow the normal firing paths that supply the conscious mind with its cognitive and rational functions. The cerebral cortex, that oddly ruffled outer layer of the brain, is where our civilized selves lay. That region is responsible for higher order functions, which are impossible to maintain without replenishing the power that it operates on, meaning sleep. It must shut down while it regains strength, whereas lower regions of the brain, such as those responsible for dreams, remain "awake". This is somewhat similar to the higher order brain of the dolphin, who must breathe at the surface, in order to stay alive. But to stay at the surface, it would have to be conscious. Nature solves the problem by having half their brains "sleep", while the other half takes over functions such as breathing.
Nonetheless, Man does go extended periods without sleep, for a variety of reasons. Whether it is a new baby, or chronic stress, many people find themselves unable to get enough sleep at one time, to restore their energy levels or functional levels at work or home. Then there are the silly reasons that people go without sleep, including reality shows such as the UK's "Shattered", which in 2004 offered a prize of 100,000 pounds Sterling (to be reduced if contestants were caught napping) for the person who could stay awake the longest. What a shame that Randy Gardner was 39 years ahead of his time, when in 1965, the 17-year old stayed awake for 11 days straight. After the first few days, Gardner's speech slurred and he lapsed into a conscious stupor.