The Purpose of Sleep

I hypothesize that the main purpose of sleep is to prepare the mind for the next day. Throughout a person’s day, there are instances where information slips by, unacknowledged, due to a preoccupation on another matter. I call these unacknowledged thoughts, although they’re often referred to as the subconscious or unconscious mind. These thoughts lie dormant near the center of the brain (hippocampus). I believe that during sleep, these unacknowledged thoughts get converted into acknowledged thoughts—transferred from hippocampus to cerebrum. This is known as the standard model of systems consolidation.

This hypothesis is based on experiences shared by many. It’s common for a person to be stuck on a problem, go to sleep, and wake up with the solution. The solution is an unacknowledged thought that became realized. It’s strange: the solution always comes from left field and comes so obviously and effortlessly. Just the other day you were beating yourself up and barking up the wrong tree for a solution. Sometimes, you don’t even recognize a problem yet but, after sleeping on it, you see a better way of doing it.

Another common experience comes with music. A song will often sound bad the first time listening to it because information overload occurs. The listener is unable to acknowledge all the instruments playing and/or all of an instrument’s parts. They are unacknowledged thoughts with seemingly no connection to the understood parts of the song. Thus, the brain deems the song as being too random. After going to sleep and listening to the same song the next day, it will sound better because more of the song is acknowledged (read: ordered). The relatedness of the instruments and/or an instrument’s parts is realized. This occurs for songs with great complexity. It’s also possible that the song has so much randomness that it remains bad.

My hypothesis for how the brain acknowledges previously-unacknowledged thoughts is a bit farfetched because it’s inspired by lightning in a thunderstorm. The cerebrum is full of acknowledged, organized thoughts; it is one’s perspective of the world, or sense of reality. I see the cerebrum as the clouds and the neurons as cloud particles. I believe a neuron (i.e. thought) that is used frequently during wake develops a negative electric charge, like the base of a cloud before lightning strikes. Perhaps the neuron becomes increasingly negatively charged with each visit to this thought. The hippocampus has thoughts related to this but completely unacknowledged during wake. This is like the surface of the Earth before lightning strikes, which induces an electric charge equal to but opposite the charge of the base of a cloud.

When a person sleeps, electrical impulses transfer unacknowledged thoughts of the hippocampus up to the cerebrum. A single impulse occurs in an instant and information becomes acknowledged as a result. In a storm, just before lightning strikes, nearly invisible low-current branches descend from a cloud. The flash of lightning we see is actually traveling from the earth up to the same cloud, and known as the return stroke. The polarity between acknowledged and unacknowledged thoughts is neutralized by electrical impulses during sleep in the same way lightning discharges the electrical polarity between cloud and earth. If a full sleep is disrupted by an alarm clock, the person did not finish transferring the unacknowledged thoughts to the cerebrum. On the plus side, it is known that thoughts can remain in the hippocampus for a week.

Why You Can’t Sleep

I believe drowsiness is the result of a heavily-taxed brain. At the neuronal level, it is the accumulation of electrical charges in the cerebrum and/or unacknowledged thoughts in the hippocampus. If it’s time for bed and you’re still not tired then you haven’t accumulated a sufficient amount of (unacknowledged) thoughts. In other words, you haven’t put your brain to use. For you to become tired, your brain must be processing new information—learning. No, I’m absolutely not suggesting that you go back to school or read a book. The brain is naturally learning throughout the day, as you encounter new, thought-provoking stimuli. I suspect that people who struggle to sleep over 6 hours a day are stuck in unfulfilling, non-life-enriching daily routines. This makes it seem like people with autism are gluttons for punishment. That’s because autists strictly adhere to routines and patterns every day. Unsurprisingly, studies have found autism and sleeplessness to be highly correlated.

To understand sleep and wake I like to imagine that the brain is a sponge soaking up water. Water is new information, and you’re supposed to reach 100% saturation by the end of the day. Drowsiness kicks in as the sponge nears 100%. Sleep wrings the sponge dry. With each successful top-up and depletion, the sponge grows a bit in size. This is like a new wrinkle on the brain. Many people don’t fill it up all the way. Caffeine probably increases general cognition and awareness, thus reducing the amount of unacknowledged/unprocessed thoughts and delaying drowsiness.

If you’re suffering from sleeplessness, the solution is mental stimulation—not forcing yourself to bed and shutting your eyes. What’s considered stimulating to one person, however, may not be stimulating to another. A newborn baby can easily overwhelmed by new information to process and quickly crash into a deep sleep. An adult has experienced and learned many things—not to mention mastered the basics—so taxing the mind can be difficult. Complexity is the key. The more developed the mind, the more complex the information required to “top off” the brain for a healthy sleep.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is kind of a list of human activities sorted from most complex to most simple. An adult brain has already mastered the bottom rung—food, water, shelter, safety—so these provide no mental stimulation. At the top of the pyramid is achieving one’s full potential, creative pursuits, human relationships, contributing to society… these are the complex activities a person should be engaged in to defeat sleeplessness. It’s not as easy as the snap of the fingers, though. One’s environment needs to be accommodative.

Let’s say we pluck a high-functioning, capable man from society and drop him off in a barren, undeveloped, third-world country, where the locals primarily focus on just food, water, shelter, and safety. Assimilating to the local lifestyle will be punishing to his brain due to the lack of mental stimulation. His brain is accustomed to operating at a higher frequency. His new environment is not accommodative to his complex thoughts. Boredom and sleeplessness will result. His brain is like a large sponge that never gets 100% filled with water. Variety is the spice of life, folks, and a big contributor to healthy sleep.

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