Sleep has intrigued scientists for a long time, but only within the last fifty years or so has it become a systematic area of study. In that amount of time, we've gained new insights into circadian rhythms and sleep cycles, including dream-laden REM--or rapid eye movement--sleep. And although we know a lot about how we sleep, exactly why we sleep is still a mystery.
One way scientists have attempted to answer the holy grail question of why we sleep is to study what happens when we don't sleep. New research has shown that when animals don't sleep for extended periods of time, certain neurons flip their own switches, in essence, and display sleep-like patterns of activation even in a wakeful individual. And interestingly, dolphins and seals sleep only one hemisphere of the brain at a time. Perhaps because they must come up for air--they are mammals, after all--and because they need to look out for predators, they have evolved an ability to sleep while they are still awake. If certain brain regions can be asleep and others awake at the exact same time, perhaps sleep isn't the all-or-nothing phenomenon that scientists long thought it was. This paradigm shift in the way we view sleep may lead to new efforts in studying sleep disorders or lapses in attention from daytime sleepiness.
In fact, weird stuff starts to happen to the body and the mind when we don't sleep. Did you know that the longest any human has intentionally gone without sleep was eleven days? Straight? His name was Randy Gardner and he was a 17 year-old high school student from San Diego, California. During this period, in 1964, he was extensively studied by researchers and suffered from memory problems, paranoia, and hallucinations. And although others have claimed to beat this record over the years, none were scientifically documented. But what would happen if we could go even longer without sleep?
Researchers have studied the effects of long periods of sleeplessness on laboratory animals. Mice who are intentionally sleep deprived for longer than around two weeks suffer lesions on their tails and paws, and despite eating more, they endure dramatic weight loss. Progressively, they fail to regulate body temperature, develop immune system impairments, and eventually die when their major organ systems begin to shut down. Although your body won't really let you go too long without sleep without forcing you to shut down (or at least fall into microsleeps), it's thought that around two-thirds of all Americans are sleep deprived.
And how much sleep we really need depends on how old you are, what's happening in your brain, and even your gender. On average, women sleep longer than men. And babies sleep longer than older people. It's not uncommon for infants to sleep between 15 and 18 hours a night, while elderly adults report feeling rested at around six hours. And school aged kids, even teenagers, may need between 9 and 11 hours a night. New research also suggests that neurobiologically, young people would benefit from sleeping in, to aid in neuronal pruning and rewiring of nerve networks. Indeed, the early-morning school schedule, which coincides with mom and dad's work schedule, may not be ideal for health or learning. The average adult requires somewhere between 7 and 8 hours of sleep, but when it comes down to it, different sleep strokes for different folks. It's important to know your body, and to make sure that your particular sleep requirements are fulfilled.
How much sleep do you need per night? And what's the longest you've ever gone without it? How did it make you feel? Weigh in on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
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