Scientists used to think that our brains switched off when we weren’t awake — out like a light, as the saying goes — but nothing could be further from the truth. As it turns out, when we enter sleep, our brains begin a highly orchestrated, intricate symphony of complex activities that make everything about our waking life possible. Throughout the night, we cycle in and out of two stages of sleep, Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM).
Here are just a few of the essential functions that are taking place during these sleeping hours — things we literally could not survive without. While you’re asleep, your brain:
Makes decisions. The brain can process complex stimuli while asleep, and it can use this information to help you make decisions when you’re
Sets the subconscious stage for our waking life. We know that our daily choices are a manifestation of our subconscious beliefs. It is possible to use sleep as a space to “re- program” limiting beliefs. Life coach Tara Zirker recommends embracing sleep as the greatest opportunity we have to create the lives we want. She encourages clients to fall asleep meditating on their deep desires: loving relationships, more abundance, self- acceptance — and mark the difference over the course of a few
Flushes out harmful toxins. A series of 2013 studies found that the space between brain cells increases, which allows the brain to flush out toxic molecules that have accumulated during the day — toxins that can affect neurodegenerative illnesses.
Forms new memories and archives old ones. Your brain takes what it’s learned and moves memories to the appropriate locations in the brain, creating long- or short-term memories. It also links recent learning to things you’ve learned before, which creates neuroconnections, builds learning capacity, and cements memory. Without this function, we would become so overwhelmed with input that we couldn’t function in our day-to-day
Drives creative thinking. Sleep encourages what neuroscientists call “remote associates” — that is, unusual connections. So, you could be hammering away at a problem, unable to figure out a solution, but while you’re asleep, your brain might link two totally disparate things, creating a sudden a-ha moment for you upon
Boosts immunity. The brain uses sleep time to heal and to re-energize what’s been depleted. It works to balance hormone levels, and to restore damage that’s been done.
Our brains are really good at making order from chaos — and that is part of the crucial role that good sleep plays. We need that deep, slow-wave sleep to recuperate from the normal strain our minds and bodies experience during the day. We need the activity of REM to process the billions of pieces of information we’ve taken in during our waking hours, to make sense of our experiences and feelings, to sort out where thoughts and memories should get “filed.”
Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, a world-renowned psychiatrist and brain health expert from Duke University, sums it up this way: “Sleep is probably the glue that ties all our health together.”
We know that many, many people in our culture have trouble sleeping, in large part due to elevated cortisol levels — a harmful side effect of chronic stress. There are several things you can do to bring cortisol levels back to normal, like:
- Decreasing sugar, alcohol, and caffeine intake
- Getting out in nature and exercising
- Practicing meditation regularly (the low-frequency Delta and Theta brain waves in deep meditation are the same that are present in healing and restorative Slow Wave Sleep)
- Eliminating screen time for at least an hour before going to bed
How much sleep do you get each day? Share below!
Resources consulted for this article:
- Andrillon, Thomas and Kouider, Sid. “How your brain actually makes decisions in your sleep.” The Washington Post. September 17, 2014.
- Brainworks Neurotherapy online. “What are brainwaves?”
- Gregoire, Carolyn. “5 amazing things your brain does while you sleep.” Huffington Post. Sept 28, 2014. Konnikova, Maria. “Good Night. Sleep Clean.” The New York Times. January 11, 2014.
- Scientific American online. “What happens in the brain during sleep?”