I love sleeping. It is both necessary and restorative, but I had no idea what critical mental housekeeping functions occur while you snooze.
While it is true that we sleep on average a third of our lives, without it, our life expectancy would undoubtedly be shortened. Our brains go through cycles of specific activity from short bursts of high output, or spindles as neuro-scientists call them, where memories are strengthened through repetition, to slow-wave, high amplitude deeper sleep. Most of us are familiar with the deepest, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when we live out our dreams, both good and bad.
I recently discovered the work of an incredibly intelligent and articulate woman, who is a sleep scientist at Cardiff University. Professor Penny Lewis, talks enthusiastically about her research into manipulating dream cycles. She explains that during sleep, cerebral spinal fluid bathes our brains and flushes out toxins, including the Beta-amyloid protein complex, that is associated with the build-up of plaques related to memory problems and cell death in parts of the cortex. This is particularly prevalent during slow wave, deep sleep, where our neurons can relax the length of their axons by up to sixty percent.
As we age, our ability to achieve substantial levels of slow wave sleep, diminishes, thus our prefrontal cortex begins to shrink. REM sleep becomes more difficult to sustain, reducing our ability to make associative thought patterns to solve problems during our dream state. Professor Lewis’s research uses sound interruptions at specific points in the sleep cycle, to induce higher amplitude, slow wave sleep. The intention is to slow the ageing process of our neural circuitry, enhance memory function, boost creative output and provide relief for those who struggle with emotional control following trauma. Lewis claims that activating unpleasant memories during sleep, allows the brain to make sense of the experience, thus desensitising the victim to daytime flashbacks. Her team discovered that short burst brain activity, or spindles, provide markers to memory activation. They used a series of single clicks to increase the amplitude of deep sleep and specific sound cues to trigger memories.
In a few years, Apple, Pebble, Fitbit and every other wearable tech will start monitoring the duration and wave patterns of our sleep cycles and will automatically stimulate slow wave brain flushing on a controlled schedule. My watch already monitors how much deep sleep I have, although it does tend to confuse sleep with when I am sitting still writing too. I can see the advantages of Professor Lewis’s research aims, but I can also see another method by which humans can be manipulated. How long would it be before sleep manipulation is control centrally by computer scientists, whose budgets are defined by civil servants in Whitehall? A zombie apocalypse via sleep deprivation, or an army of brainwashed super soldiers? A paranoid conspiracy theorists view, or a distinct possibility? You choose.
Sam Nash is the author of the sci-fi conspiracy thriller, The Aurora Mandate. Release date TBA. You can find her at https://www.samnash.org or on Twitter @samnashauthor or Facebook.com/samnash.author.