Monday, 21 July 2008

40 winks helps you think....s

Believe it or not, sleep is good for you!

Ha! A brain related article, now we're talking. And from the Guardian as well, not the often linked BBC website. I don't normally read papers at all, I don't really trust any publication that has a well defined political agenda. Although I'm aware that most science publications may well have a bias of some sort, they have to have the data to back up conclusions, so there's more chance of forming your own opinions. I always prefer to read 'experiments showed this...' rather than the insane ramblings of some foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing fat-faced bigot (Richard Littlejohn or John Gaunt I was thinking of, UK readers may recognise them, any American people reading this, I'm sure you have plenty of your own media types who fit that description).

What is it with the right-wing columnists always going on about Gay people? Fundamentalist Christians are the same. Evolution and Gays, two things that really enrage the zealots. Gay people = "It's not Natural!". Evolution = "It's too natural!". Can't really win, can you. But taken logically, evolution depends on beneficial mutations in DNA passed on to the offspring, over time resulting in changes to the whole species. Homosexuality, by it's very nature, cannot be passed on to offspring, so according to evolution, Gay people shouldn't exist. But they do, clearly. So Gay people are miracles, thus proving the existence of God and defying evolution. Explain this to a Christian Bigot, see what happens.

But as usual, I digress. The article describes an experiment where people who've slept on a problem are better at solving it than those who aren't. This seems logical, as people who are tired aren't as alert as those who aren't, and by preventing someone from sleeping when they usually would, it can become very disorientating. Again, this may seem like common sense, but there's actually a lot more mystery around sleep than people think. The article itself is over simplified, and there clearly is some decent science going on there as they're presenting at the FENS conference, which is massively important and they don't allow wackos or fools to present there, they'll be torn to pieces by the academics in attendance. And don't think academics are all nice and well mannered, they're as territorial and opinionated as anyone. More so in some cases. You don't really appreciate this until you've heard a professor shout 'You're not at Cambridge now, you stupid fu**ing b**ch!". Priceless.

The actual function of sleep is still debatable. Obviously, the body gets rest during sleep, but the brain doesn't. A sleeping brain is as active as a conscious brain, just differently so. I had a three hour lecture which tried to explain this once, all to do with sleep phases, theta rhythms, REM significance. It was a dull lecture. Ironically, I feel asleep. Almost as bad as the time I felt like killing myself after a 4 hour seminar on depression.

So if it's not for rest, why do we sleep? One rather abstract theory I once heard is that we spend night times asleep because, in evolutionary terms, that's when predators were most likely to be after us, so by remaining motionless 'indoors' for long periods we avoid them. This is assuming predators don't use their acute senses to find us in our hiding places, and if they do, being unconscious is probably a poor form of defense. And we don't remain completely motionless in our sleep. An ex-girlfriend of mine once head-butted me in her sleep. Well... she said she was asleep.

I once heard that you can die from lack of sleep before you die from lack of food. This is debatable, as trying not to sleep is like trying not to breathe, albeit takes a lot longer. If you hold your breath, you might manage it for long enough to pass out, at which point you start breathing again. Catch 22. Same with sleep, after a certain period without it, you start 'micro sleeping', which is where you just sleep for brief periods, mostly without realising it. Although it's uncertain how long you can manage like this. People seem to feel lack of sleep differently on an individual basis, some people start becoming very psychologically imbalanced after a few days without sleep, others don't seem to feel any ill effects apart from fatigue. It's odd. I'm not sure at what point no sleep becomes fatal, researchers aren't usually allowed to expose subjects to anything that might kill them, as even if they were fine with manslaughter, the paperwork generated would be incredibly tedious.

The consolidation of memories as a function of sleep has always been a popular theory, and this finding gives it more support. REM sleep, when dreaming happens, has been suggested as the time when the brain strengthens links between new memories and older ones. This fits in quite nicely when you think about it, as dreams tend to be an insane mish-mash of recent thoughts and events and things from your remote past. All of these things were from your perspective, so that's why dreams seem real. That would also explain why it's very hard to remember dreams, because you're generally activating old memories, not creating new ones. And this finding seems to suggest this is what happens.

Other interpretations of dreams are that they're just your subconscious mind telling you something important. I've never been one to believe this. Your subconscious is just that; sub. Meaning 'under'. If your subconscious mind could recognise and evaluate and communicate important aspects of your life, rather than just running the life-support system and processing the general info, maybe it wouldn't be content to be a subordinate, maybe it would try and stage a coup. Maybe this is what happens in people with multiple personalities or certain types of schizophrenia. It's not an illness, it's the subconscious after promotion.

It would be a bit of a double standard if so. If you're subconscious communicates with you through dreams, that's fine and some people who literally don't have a clue will charge you a lot of money to 'interpret' them. However, if your subconscious talks to you directly, you get medicated or locked up. Who was it who said 'if you talk to God, you're religious, if God talks back, you're insane"?

By the way, I'd like to point out I'm not one of those anti-religious uber-cynics. I feel the same way about fundamentalist zealots as I do about self-confessed atheists who go out of their way to make religious people unhappy. You get a lot of this on the comedy circuit. Religion causes a lot of problems, I won't deny that, but most of the religious people in the world are happy, friendly, harmless people who don't bother anyone and their faith grants them a measure of inner piece in increasingly turbulent times. Good luck to them, who are we to take that away? A lot of people have a go at religious types and justify their actions because religious people 'believe in something that doesn't exist'. Fine, but using that logic, neither does football.

Football is an entirely abstract concept that exists only in a shared set of beliefs. Nature does not endorse football, you don't get two teams of gazelles trying to boot a frightened armadillo past each other on a square patch of African Savannah. Yet people believe in football, they go to buildings to join others who share in their belief, they give money to the representatives of their "faith", they passionately believe in individuals who represent their chosen type of football, and generally react with violence towards those who believe in/support others. The parallels are many, so if you do think it's OK to attack and mock innocent people who just happen to be religious, you have to do the same to the Milwall supporters, and the Cardiff Soul Crew.

Go on...

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3 comments:

petercottell said...

Nice analogy of religion. Does that make Torres God?

You Took That Well said...

Re: Homosexuals and Evolution

There is a theory that goes something like: a disproportionate number of third (i.e. youngest of three) sons are gay. Therefore homosexuality is evolution's way of curbing this big ol' population of ours.

I'm afraid I can't cite this at the moment (and if I did knowing me it would probably be from the Guardian which I know wouldn't do for you). However, searching for "third son" and homosexual comes up with a surprising number of hits linked to single cases. Oh actually here's something in the New Scientist I think http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg17723884.900.html

I had a lecturer who once laughed loudly in my face when I told her about something I read in the New Scientist as she considered it to be a sensationalist tabloid of knowledge, a veritable Sun! of academia. I don't know what you think.

And by the way thanks for combining three of my top ten things, namely science, comedy and cynicism.

Dean Burnett, BSc, PhD (circa Nov 2008) said...

Nothing wrong with the Guardian, that I can see. Nor New Scientist, I'm a big fan, nice that someone makes the effort to spread Science based news to the general public, rather than pick and chose interesting bits and ignore context. I've also encountered the theoriy that homosexuality is a result of infantising, the process whereby evolution accelerates species development by retaining the properties of youth, which is why humans resemble baby chimps a lot more than adult ones.

We all go through the same-sex interaction phase when we're at school, where 'girls smell' and 'boys are stupid', but sometimes people don't grow out of that, but do develop to sexual maturity. Hence, homosexuals, who are an integral part of our social interactions on larger scale. When they're not being hounded by zealots, of course.

Cheers for feedbakc.

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