Thursday Rambling: Sleepless Nights

So I asked around yesterday: What fascinates you most about sleep/dreams?

The big answer was lucid dreaming, which I’ve already got on the schedule for next week. After hearing this, I may spend some extra time on the subject. The next popular answer was “it’s a miracle if I get any sleep” which is absolutely relevant. Some people have lives so busy they can’t set a decent sleep schedule, and some people can, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get any sleep during the time they’ve put aside.

I’ll be 31 next month. I’ve never had kids, and I don’t plan to have any either. I’ve had friends as young as 14 who got to experience parenthood and the effects it has on sleep. I’ve always been seriously impressed by anyone who could have a child, a job and go to school at the same time. There are changes to my own life that I didn’t think I could handle, but when you have to do it, your body will eventually adjust to the new schedule. It just seems impossible when you’re standing on the outside trying to figure out how to make it work.

My sleep schedule right now is from 1 or 2 in the morning to 5:50am, then I get up to pick up my boyfriend from his night job. When I get home, I go back to bed for just a little while until 8 or 8:15 when I have to get ready for work. Many days, this is enough sleep. Other times I come home from work and take a nap until my boyfriend wakes up. Regardless of whether I nap or not, I can’t make myself go to sleep any earlier that 1 in the morning. I could take him to work and come straight home, lay down in bed at 10 and toss and turn for hours.

When this all started, when his truck was no longer drivable and I thought it would be safer for me to drive him to and from work, 5:50am was painful. I hate being up that early in the morning, especially when I value how productive my brain seems to be late at night. Lately, it’s just a thing that I do, and I’m happy that I get to consciously settle back down for a little more sleep. Be honest, you love it when you wake up in the middle of the night and realize you still have an hour or two to sleep before the alarm goes off. It beats the hell out of waking up five minutes before it goes off.

But on to the topic of sleepless nights. I love and hate them. I love having an active mind and the ability to get so many things accomplished in a time that seems “extra” outside my schedule. My body doesn’t seem to realize that I’m not going to be able to sleep when it is finally ready. My plans for the next day, and how many hours it will be before I’m able to go to bed again, just don’t even matter. And of course an hour before I’m supposed to wake up, I finally start to feel really peaceful and sleepy. Blame the blue light of dawn for that. Did you know that exposure to the blue light that precedes sunrise is important to chemical processes that promote sleep? Combine that with the lowest temperature of the day, and it will give you a pretty good idea why I, or you, can’t seem to get sleepy until an hour or two before we were supposed to wake up.

Some people can’t get to sleep without white noise. My boyfriend has to have a fan running while he sleeps, even in winter. I struggle to get to sleep without the sound of voices. Music won’t do, they have to be talking normally. I keep my laptop by the bed and put on old TV shows like Golden Girls. Something I’ve seen enough times that I won’t stay up watching to see what happens. The original Addams Family is also good for this. It’s a good thing we sleep at different times of day.

I suppose that’s plenty of rambling for today. I want to save insomnia and restless legs syndrome for a Tuesday entry. Next week I’ll be covering Chemicals of Sleep and Lucid Dreaming. There’s also something special planned for August 1st.

Time-lapse Sleep

Watching time-lapse videos of people sleeping reminds me of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say that it involves erasing memories while the subject sleeps. As with any Charlie Kaufman film, there’s some love-triangley, melancholy disquiet, and it edges into the surreal and symbolic (another common quality of his work) very much like a dream.

If you search around YouTube for “time lapse sleep” you will find numerous personal videos. Many of them aren’t terribly useful, because they don’t include a timestamp or a description of the actual time elapsed in the video. This is important to actual study, because it gives clues as to the person’s normal sleep cycle. Research has shown an average cycle of 90 minutes, though in my own study, I found my cycle only lasted 70 minutes.

I would shift a little bit in the beginning, then about 45 minutes in, my breathing would become heavy. At about an hour and ten minutes after falling asleep, I would wake up and turn over, then repeat the same process. I was only able to capture 2 cycles before I actually woke up and stopped recording. It turned out to be very awkward sleeping with my grow light on.

Before I started the video, I wasn’t sure what I would see. I love scary movies and part of me expected I would find something creepy standing over me. It was nothing like that. I was also a little afraid since my doctor suspected I have sleep apnea. I thought I might see myself stop breathing, but obviously if I was able to watch the video it meant I’d been able to start breathing again, so that wasn’t a particular concern. Instead, when I played the video back, I saw a pretty mundane little nap.

I’m still looking for good software to use my webcam for still capture. For the first video, I used Flix (demo version with the watermark). It’s $10 to register and have the watermark removed, but I didn’t trust the program. It came with a bunch of adware and was pretty unstable. I uninstalled and rolled back my computer the next day. I’m not opposed to spending money on a good program, but my funds are limited at the moment, so cheap is better. I’ve heard of Gawker, but it’s a Mac program. All I, or you, need for time-lapse sleep videos is something that you can set to take photos with your webcam at intervals of your choosing. I think I set mine to take a picture every 15 seconds.

Give it a try, if you’re curious. The only slightly disturbing thing about it is that you get to see yourself totally vulnerable and completely natural. You’re not even self-aware enough to present your “good side” when you’re sleeping, or to suppress embarrassing gestures/expressions.

REM Sleep: Introduction

REM is such a huge topic to cover, I’m going to put down some key points and probably revisit them in detail in later entries.

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage of sleep we generally associate with dreams, but as we’ve seen in the July 10th entry on slow-wave sleep, there are actually two dream stages. During REM, named for the random darting of the eyes, the body loses muscle tone and an EEG registers quick, low-voltage readings.

Scientists have some theories as to the function of REM sleep, and the most common being taught in psychology is that the brain is trying to process and store information that may not fit into a clear category, and so dreams are very surreal and disjointed because your mind is trying to give structure to the memories. It’s trying to make a story. According to some studies, REM establishes procedural memory, though there have been conflicting studies that would suggest that this is a function of slow-wave sleep (in reference to the repetitive dreams of games that seem to improve performance upon waking).

REM is important not only for humans, but all land mammals and also birds. Evolution has done us a favor by including a mechanism for tonic immobility during this important stage of sleep. At our most vulnerable, can you imagine how easily a predatory would pick us off if we all acted out our dreams? That’s not to say it never happens. Watch any dog dreaming and you’ll probably notice some foot movement; what I like to call “chasing rabbits.” When functioning ideally, this paralysis (REM atonia) is akin to feigning death. When not functioning ideally, it can result in sleep walking, or sleep paralysis if it continues to suppress movement as the person begins to regain awareness.

REM atonia is produced by the release of monoamines (norepinephrine, serotonin, and histamine). Norepinephrine is partially responsible for fight-or-flight response, activating parts of the brain such as the amygdala. This explains why REM dreams are often very emotional, and also why it is so dangerous to try to wake someone who is sleep walking. The synthesis of norepninephrine depends on the amino acid tyrosine (found in meat, nuts, eggs and cheese). Tyrosine can be synthesized by phenylalanine, but you’ve probably heard all sorts of warnings about that. You find it in many diet drinks containing aspartame. Some people are sensitive to phenylalanine and may suffer seizures, but the same natural sources of tyrosine also contain phenylalanine.

A typical night of sleep involves many cycles through the stages of sleep. A cycle is about 90 minutes, and with each consequent cycle the duration of REM increases while slow-wave tapers off. It is sometimes referred to as paradoxical sleep because brain waves are very similar to those of an awake, alert brain. While it has similar brain waves, the body does a poor job of regulating things like temperature and heart rate during this time. It is also the stage of sleep with increased blood flow to genital areas of both sexes (which could total anywhere from 1 to 3.5 hours during sleep).

As I’ve said, REM is such a huge topic, I will be revisiting more specific elements in future entries. Tomorrow, I will be discussing time-lapse video studies, with which I have had some limited personal success.