Save a Life: Take a Nap

Are you sleep-deprived? If you’re a working adult in America, I can probably answer the question for you: yes. Or at least, statistically, you have an 80% chance, according to a January 11 New York Times piece by Maria Konnikova.

On the fence about whether or not you qualify? Well, do you constantly feel tired during the day, or do you often find yourself falling asleep within five minutes of lying down? Chances are you’re not an efficient sleeper; you’re just not sleeping enough.

That’s not just murder on your coffee budget, it’s bad news if you’re planning on learning anything. According to a 2011 UC Berkeley study, sleep is an essential part of holding onto memories. That’s when bursts of brain waves called “sleep spindles” network up to shift fact-based info from the hippocampus, which has limited storage, to the more long-term storage of the prefrontal cortex. The more spindles, the more learning is enabled.

Unfortunately, these spindles are much more active during the later, non-REM portion of slumber, so if you’re sleeping 6 hours or less, it’s harder to form long-term memories.

It’s also bad news if you’re planning on not crashing your car. When you put sleep-deprived people in a driving simulator or give them a hand-eye coordination test, they tend to perform the same or worse as drunk people. (And if you’re considering swigging down a reasonable-seeming bottle of beer before a drive, keep in mind sleep deprivation magnifies the effect of alcohol.)

Getting 6 to 7 hours of shut-eye a night? You are twice as likely to be in a car accident than someone averaging 8 hours or more. If you’re more of an insomniac, and you can only manage 5 hours or less, that accident is now four to five times more likely for you than it is for your friend the eight-hours-a-night-sleeper.

It’s a widespread problem, as Konnikova explains. The average American today sleeps 2 hours less per night than their counterpart from 100 years ago. Between 50 and 70 million Americans are suffering from one chronic sleep disorder or another.

We are a nation of night owls, and a nation of drivers. The results are clear, and a little terrifying. Letting sleep-deprived people behind the wheel leads to at least 100,000 car crashes each year, killing an esimated 1550 people. However, since self-reporting is inherently flawed and many, many people don’t even know when they’re too tired to function, most experts suspect the real figure is much higher.

The damage isn’t just happening on the highway: a 2004 study at Harvard Medical School found that hospitals could reduce their medical errors by up to 36 percent just by capping out doctor work shifts at 16 hours a day, and 80 hours per week. Factor in commuting, showering, and the necessary time to wind down from a shift, and this still doesn’t even leave the 7 to 9 hours of sleep recommended by medical science for peak mental performance. It’s just enough rest not to stagger around like a zombie, accidentally adding salt to your coffee—or worse.

For those of you looking to minimize the casualties in your life, consider these tips for better sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.

  • Exercise can lead to better sleep (but remember to exercise at least three hours before bed; physical activity raises your heart rate and your body temperature, the last thing you need when you’re trying to wind down.”
  • Before bed, avoid anything that stimulates the body: caffeine, nicotine, and spicy or heavy meals
  • Develop a relaxing pre-bed routine that doesn’t involve screens (light can be disruptive)
  • Maintain a relatively consistent bedtime and wake-up time. Use as much natural light in the morning as possible, and in the evening, signal to your body that it’s time to sleep with a dark, quiet, slightly colder room.

And if you’re really struggling to keep your eyes open on the highway, pull over and let yourself snooze for a while. The moment the sounds of the freeway start to feel soothing, you know it’s time to give in and get some sleep.

Are You Brainwashed? Hopefully Yes.

When you think of brainwashing, the name Patty Hearst might come to mind. Daughter of the late newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst, in 1974, the then nineteen-year-old was kidnapped by a fringe terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Several months later, she resurfaced, calling herself Tania and wielding a gun for the SLA during an attempted bank robbery. In September 1975, the local police and the FBI apprehended Hearst in an apartment in San Francisco, along with another SLA member. That January, she was tried for her involvement in the robbery.

The Hearst family’s legal team claimed Patty had been operating under a “classic case” of Stockholm Syndrome. They argued that after weeks of rape, torment, and imprisonment in a closet, she could no longer withstand an SLA indoctrinement.

The prosecution argued that she had willfully decided to aid the SLA, given some circumstantial evidence and her refusal to name names or turn anyone else in. The jury agreed. She served two years of a 35-year jail term before President Carter commuted her sentence. Twenty four years after that, President Clinton issued a full pardon — one of his last official actions in the Oval Office.

The strange case of Patty Hearst, and indeed, the very concept of brainwashing, is still hotly debated. That said, as a clinical diagnosis, it has yet to gain a foothold in the psychological community.

Yet recently the idea of brainwashing has resurfaced with a whole new twist — minus the terrorists, kidnapped heiresses, or attempted bank heists. Still, if you’re a neuroscience buff, you might find this case even more exciting. It concerns the dreaded brain disease known as Alzheimer’s.

According to a story by John Hamilton entitled Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep, researchers discovered that brain cells shrink during sleep. This makes room for cerebral spinal fluid to circulate around the cell walls. It’s theorized that this circulation flushes out harmful proteins, the waste product of extracting energy from the blood’s glucose.

“It’s like a dishwasher,” says Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and author of study in Science magazine.

This buildup of toxic proteins, sometimes referred to as ‘brain plaque’, has long been associated with Alzheimer’s. According to Nedergaard, a variety of sleep disorders might interfere with the cleansing — leading to some substantial problems later.

Why does this mental rinse cycle only happen during sleep? Since the process uses a lot of resources, she theorizes it’s an energy- saving strategy.

Furthermore, says Nedergaard, it could “explain why we don’t think clearly after a sleepless night and why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person.”

Nedergaard’s team first observed the process in laboratory rats, and since then it’s been observed in baboons. Scientists haven’t detected it yet in humans, but Nedergaard believes it’s only a matter of time.

This kind of brainwashing might not have the headline appeal of a kidnapped newspaper heiress gone rogue, but its implications extend to millions of people who may be suffering from plaque-related brain disorders.

If Nedergaard is right, it might turn out that brainwashing is something each and every one of us will be glad we are a party to.

Hey, Wake Up!

On May 23, 1987 Kenneth Parks drove to his in-laws’ house in the middle of the night and brutally murdered his wife’s mother and attempted to kill her father. Prior to that there were no signs of violence, no horrible childhood, no shocking past trauma from a war experience. There was nothing particularly stressful at work. He had some financial issues, a gambling addiction and marital problems, but up until that evening by all accounts he’d been a mild mannered guy with a cordial relationship with his in-laws.

Remarkably that night he confessed to the crime and during a subsequent trial was acquitted by a jury of his peers of the murder and attempted murder. A case of injustice, you might ask? No, according to the court documents, it was a case of homicidal somnambulism, sometimes known as lethal sleepwalking.

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What Dreams are Made Of

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it, and so do humans. I’m talking, of course, about sleep.  We spend roughly 33% of our time on earth in semi- hibernation, with our bodies partially paralyzed and although we can’t live without it, we are still somewhat in the dark (too obvious to be intentional) about how the whole process works.

If you ask most people, they will equate sleep with rest, a recharging of the ol’ battery. If you ask neuroscientists about sleep, they will tell you that it’s some of the brain’s most important working hours, when memory is consolidated and strengthened.

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