CLOSE
iStock
iStock

7 Reasons Sleep Makes You a Better Person

iStock
iStock

Sleep may be thought of as down time for the body, but as we rest, the brain is still up and running. No, you can’t learn a foreign language while you snooze. But sleep does play a pivotal role in learning and development. The brain that went to sleep last night isn’t exactly the same as the one that woke up this morning. While scientists still aren't sure why we sleep, they have conducted extensive research on the impact of sleep on our waking lives. Here are seven areas where the science backs up the common-sense idea that a good night’s rest is not just good for you. It's essential.   

1. Sleep helps you learn. 

While we sleep, the brain isn’t just resting. It’s busy rearranging and connecting its neuron networks in different ways. This helps you make associations, recognize patterns, and recall information. That old adage about getting a good night’s rest before a big test isn’t just about feeling alert while you’re bubbling in the answers. People recall information better after they sleep, even if it’s just a daytime nap. For instance, one study of auditory memory found that after people trained themselves on a pitch memory task, they performed better after they slept compared to before they slept. 

Scientists suggest that as we sleep, memories are being consolidated and transferred to other parts of the brain. This could be one reason we dream. Lab rats, for example, have been found to run mazes in their dreams, just as they do during the day. 

Memory improvements after sleep may be even more dramatic in children than in adults. Maybe that’s why kids need so much sleep!

2. Sleep helps you remember.  

While you may not be conscious of it, you can hear and smell during your sleep. When you hear or smell something as you learn, and then are exposed to it again as you sleep, it improves recall once you awaken. In a 2007 study, volunteers learned the locations of picture cards in a game similar to “concentration.” While they learned, they smelled the scent of a rose. Those who were exposed to the odor again while they slept that night remembered 97 percent of the locations, compared to only 86 percent for the people who didn’t stop to smell the roses as they slept. 

The smell (or sound) might help reactivate memories of the day, improving the ability to recall that memory in the morning.

3. Sleep improves motor skills. 

Researchers at Brown University identified a specific brainwave that occurs during sleep that seems to be vital to learning motor tasks, like playing the piano. Multiple studies have shown that musicians’ performance improves when practicing a new melody is followed by sleep. Further studies have shown sleep to improve other skills that involve coordination, like walking a complicated route, or, in the case of one 1988 study, trampolining

4. Sleep can make you less prejudiced. 

In a recent study, researchers put a group of 40 white individuals through an anti-bias training to reduce implicit, unconscious prejudice against women and people of color. While they looked at images that paired women and black men with non-stereotypical descriptors (like women and science words), an auditory cue pinged. Those who heard the sound again while they slept showed further reduction in measures of bias when they woke up. The result lasted for at least a week. 

5. Sleep helps you speak a new language—if you’ve already put some time in.

Sleep’s memory-boosting affects do apply to language-learning, though you can’t learn brand-new words while you’re unconscious. When German-speaking students were assigned to learn Dutch words for the first time, those who heard the same words played back to them while they slept could remember the German translation of the words better than the group who had the words played back while they were still awake. 

6. Sleep helps you navigate. 

When people dream, they may work out problems relevant to their waking lives—including spatial problems. When almost 100 people were taught to navigate a virtual maze as part of Harvard Medical School research, some of them has maze-related dreams (though, in the way of dreams, they weren’t necessarily solving that particular maze). Those who did performed better on the virtual maze later that day—better than those who didn’t sleep, and better than those who slept but didn’t dream. Other studies also suggest that sleep improves accuracy in navigating mazes. 

7. Sleep improves your immune system. 

Even if you’re a healthy person, sleep boosts your immune system. Just like you need sleep to remember foreign language vocabulary, your immune system needs it to remember how to fight off infection. In a study of healthy men, sleeping after a hepatitis vaccination improved the body’s immune response, making the vaccine more potent. In another study, people who slept fewer than six hours a night were 11.5 times more likely to remain unprotected from hepatitis B after getting the vaccine compared to people who slept more than seven hours, because their immune systems didn’t create antibodies to fight the virus. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
Scientists Identify Cells in the Brain That Control Anxiety
iStock
iStock

People plagued with the uncomfortable thoughts and sensations characteristic of anxiety disorders may have a small group of cells in the brain to blame, according to a new study. As NPR reports, a team of researchers has identified a class of brain cells that regulates anxiety levels in mice.

The paper, published in the journal Neuron, is based on experiments conducted on a group of lab mice. As is the case with human brains, the hippocampus in mouse brains is associated with fear and anxiety. But until now, researchers didn't know which neurons in the hippocampus were responsible for feelings of worry and impending danger.

To pinpoint the cells at work, scientists from Columbia University, the University of California, San Francisco, and other institutions placed mice in a maze with routes leading to open areas. Mice tend to feel anxious in spacious environments, so researchers monitored activity in the hippocampus when they entered these parts of the maze. What the researchers saw was a specialized group of cells lighting up when the mice entered spaces meant to provoke anxiety.

To test if anxiety was really the driving factor behind the response, they next used a technique called optogenetics to control these cells. When they lowered the cells' activity, the mice seemed to relax and wanted to explore the maze. But as they powered the cells back up, the mice grew scared and didn't venture too far from where they were.

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism everyone experiences from time to time, but for a growing portion of the population, anxiety levels are debilitating. Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder can stem from a combination of factors, but most experts agree that overactive brain chemistry plays a part. Previous studies have connected anxiety disorders to several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which governs memory as well as fear and worry.

By uncovering not just how the brain produces symptoms of anxiety but the individual cells behind them, scientists hope to get closer to a better treatment. There's more work to be done before that becomes a possibility. The anxiety cells in mice aren't necessarily a perfect indicator of which cells regulate anxiety in humans, and if a new treatment does eventually come from the discovery, it will be one of many options rather than a cure-all for every patient with the disorder.

[h/t NPR]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
Medicine
Wilder Penfield: The Pioneering Brain Surgeon Who Operated on Conscious Patients
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For centuries, epilepsy was a source of mystery to scientists. Seizures were thought to be caused by everything from masturbation to demonic possession, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that a neurosurgeon showed the condition could sometimes be boiled down to specific spots in the brain. To do it, he had to open up patients’ heads and electrocute their brain tissue—while they were still conscious.

Wilder Penfield, the subject of today’s Google Doodle, was born on January 26, 1891 in Spokane, Washington. According to Vox, the Canadian-American doctor revolutionized the way we think about and treat epilepsy when he pioneered the Montreal Procedure. The operation required him to remove portions of the skulls of epilepsy sufferers to access their brains. He believed seizures were connected to small areas of brain tissue that were somehow damaged, and by removing the affected regions he could cure the epilepsy. His theory was based on the fact that people with epilepsy often experience “auras” before a seizure: vivid recollections of random scents, tastes, or thoughts.

To pinpoint the damaged brain tissue, he would have to locate the part of the brain tied to his patient’s aura. This meant that the patient would need to be awake to tell him when he struck upon the right sensation. Penfield stimulated the exposed brain tissue with an electrode, causing the patient to either feel numbness in certain limbs, experience certain smells, or recall certain memories depending on what part of the brain he touched. A local anesthetic reduced pain in the head; shocking the brain didn’t cause any pain because the organ doesn’t contain pain receptors.

During one of his surgeries, a patient famously cried, “I smell burnt toast!” That was the same scent that visited her before each seizure, and after Penfield removed the part of her brain associated with the sensation, her epilepsy went away.

Brain surgery isn’t a cure-all for every type of epilepsy, but treatments similar to the one Penfield developed are still used today. In some cases, as much as half of the brain is removed with positive results.

[h/t Vox]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios