Is it the Biggest Evolutionary Mistake?

The science of sleep has been a bit intriguing for me in the recent past. Yawning may be contagious, but the biggest question is — why do we sleep? Is it just to rest our tired bodies? The latest research puts forward a totally new perspective to the mysterious science of sleep. Some excerpts:

Human beings spend on average one third of their lives asleep. … Every animal studied so far needs sleep, from the elephant right down to the fruit fly. But that’s as far as the similarities go. Some animals sleep 20 hours a day, others only two or three. And still others sleep with half their brains at a time, all making it hard to figure out what exactly it is about sleep that makes it so essential, and that, in terms of evolution, makes it worth the risks. You wonder why we developed this if survival is the whole point. Because you’re completely vulnerable when you’re lying there.

Whatever the function of sleep, or the functions of sleep are, they seem to be so important that evolution is willing to put us in that place of potential danger by losing consciousness. It would be the biggest evolutionary mistake if sleep does not serve some critical function.

Sleep, as its been found, actually can enhance your memories, so that you’ll come back the next day even better than where you were the day before. What kind of effect does just four hours a night have? Well, the first [stunning] finding, was there’s a cumulative impairment that develops in your ability to think fast, to react quickly, to remember things.

And, this affects everyone. Even those who say they’ve learned to live without sleep!

“Humans love to keep asking, ‘Can’t we just get rid of sleep?”, but the more frightening question is, “… that you take someone with a severe mental disorder and a person without that disorder, but deprive them of sleep, and the brain scan will look similar?”

Update (14th April): Yesterday night I was coding some stuff, and I was stuck on a trivial issue. I was clueless as to what could be causing the problem. I left it there, and went to sleep. Today morning when I woke up, the very first thought I had in my mind was infact the cause (and solution) of the problem I was facing yesterday night. It was really strange, but I guess the brain does do a fair bit of processing while we sleep. There’s been evidence that learning is consolidated during sleep. No wonder it’s said, “just sleep on it”. Research also suggests that during sleep, the brain processes the memory much faster. Sounds like a natural defragmentation process. Hmm, I’m feeling a bit sleep deprived (until I read the case of the great mathematician Norbert Wiener).

2 thoughts on “Is it the Biggest Evolutionary Mistake?

  1. Yes Ashutosh, I agree with your post.

    I am a disaster zone without sleep, my emotions are looser and thinking shallower. I need sleep so that the mental books and notes are stacked on the shelf neatly in order rather than left scattered on the table (if you know what I mean.)

    I read that humans started evolving much more rapidly after dogs were domesticated and employed to protect and warn sleeping humans of approaching wild animals. All of sudden we could catch more sleep.

  2. I am no scientist :)

    From a simple view, it is to relax our bodies. The amount may vary from person to person. Naps after lunch can also help reduce sleep required at night (depends).

    If you are in some physical work, sleep will come naturally. For work that requires mental alertness, sleep will be less easy.

    Its like asking “why cant we run the car all the time, if we keep adding fuel to it?”

    Sleep will help rejuvenate the body (brain too).

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