In Praise of Sleep!

There were two pieces of sleep related breaking news last week, which many might have missed. A news item in Times of India says that some employers in the US are seriously considering allowing employees to sleep during the day for the benefit of improved productivity. This comes in the wake of research findings that a short nap during the working hours considerably improved alertness and performance of tasks. I would welcome this.  But don’t expect this to happen in India. If you do, you are only daydreaming!

Before I discuss the second breaking news, let me recount my experiences with sleep:

Personally I find Sleep, Yoga and meditation have a lot in common. Long time back (I think it was in 1996) I stayed at Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry for a week and got initiated into Meditation. Around the same time, I also happened to read a book by Aurabindo titled INTEGRAL YOGA. It is a great book. In the chapter on Meditation, some one asked Aurobindo whether it is mandatory to sit in an upright position for meditation. Aurobindo said: One can do meditation in any position including lying down… provided one has mastered the technique of remaining extremely alert! So, I thought why not experiment and see for myself… except that I seemed to have missed the second part of his sentence about being alert! In the initial stages this proved disastrous. I would quietly slip into ‘sound’ sleep with special sound effects at times! Amused, my wife would point out that I was in fact sleeping and I would retort: Oh, that was YOGA NIDRA! On a more serious note,though, I found this technique very effective. With some practice, it is possible to lie down, calm the mind by observing the breath a few minutes and keep observing the mind. If and  when the mind tries to slip into sleep, bring in awareness on ‘cosmic consciousness’. Do not get baffled by this jargon. This state is not difficult to attain if you know a little bit about cosmology, big bang, creation of Universe etc. A little reflection on this is enough to appreciate how insignificant we are as individuals. In such a state it is easy to integrate oneself with the whole and set aside our individuality & ego leading to blissfulness. But then a little lapse in awareness and you end up slipping into deep sleep! There is a huge difference between being blissful and being blissfully unaware of surroundings! Right?

Now are you ready and awake for the second breaking news?  This appeared in the latest issue of the prestigious NATURE magazine (26th June,2013). I will only highlight a couple of things of general interest here. The article has some good news as well as bad news on sleep. First, let me tell you the good news. We all have heard of sleep-waking, right? But have you ever heard of sleep-learning? Yes, I am not kidding. It is possible, say scientists. But the scientists warn the children at the outset not to jump to the conclusion that they could place their homework under the pillow, sleep over it and learn overnight! What then is sleep-learning? In one typical experiment the subjects were made to practice music and  sleep over it. Scientists monitored their brains during sleep. The neural activity in the brain during sleep was found to be similar to that during actual learning, indicating that the brain was indeed practicing the very music learnt before they slept. Similar  Sleep conditioning experiments have highlighted the potential of using ‘sleep therapies’  to bring about helpful behavioural modifications in conditions such as phobia.

Now the bad news. The article also talks about certain completely unexpected ill-effects of sleep deprivation. I was surprised to note that lack of sleep can lead to obesity of all things. Obesity can, in turn, result in metabolic disorders like, for instance, diabetes. I will not go into the finer scientific details* of how sleep deprivation causes obesity lest you should go to sleep!

The other negative impact of lack of sleep is, not surprisingly, memory loss.

For all the research that is going on, the phenomenon of sleep still remains largely mysterious. A multi-million dollar ‘global sleep project’ is being proposed by neuroscientists involving millions of volunteers. The participants will be asked to share data on line on their sleeping habits and related problems. The huge amount of data so collected will  then be correlated with DNA tests to see where they got those habits from. This, they hope, will eventually lead to better scheduling of work and school hours! Any volunteers?



*P.S: Apparently lack of sleep disturbs ‘circadian rhthym’, which controls the secretion of harmones.  There are 2 harmones which regulate our food intake. They are Leptin & Ghrelin. Fat cells produce Leptin while stomach produces Ghrelin. Fat cells signal their sense of satisfaction with the harmone Leptin while stomach signals its hunger through the harmone Ghrelin. When a person is deprived of sleep, Leptin levels fall while Ghrelin levels rise increasing one’s craving for fatty and sugary foods.

Published in: on June 30, 2013 at 4:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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