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Sleep: rats, birds, and me
by Chris Wilson

Did you know that there are some really good reasons to sleep late?

According to sleep researchers in Germany, people who sleep eight hours a night are more creative and artistic and possibly even smarter than those who arenít getting a full nightís sleep.

According to scientists, the sleeping brain, typically during deep sleep, undergoes changes that lead to creativity and problem-solving insight the next day.

The study used a mathematical task to prove that the well-rested bunch of subjects were better at solving the problem put before them than the sleep deprived ones. Good case for students getting a good nightís sleep before facing those final exams. (Maybe an extra long nightís sleep could cause me to balance my checkbook. Doubtful.)

While getting a good nightís sleep might seem effortless for some, apparently itís a real challenge for as many as 70 million Americans of all ages. The National Sleep Foundation found that 40% of adults ages 30 to 64 are so sleepy during the day that it interferes with their work and social functioning at least a few days each month. Thatís a lot of non-productivity.

I have a theory that when itís dark, people should be sleeping. If there are long nights in the winter, then we should respond with extra sleep. Just like the bears who hibernate in the winter.

I didnít think people were programmed to stay up during the night, even if there IS good television on then.

But a lot of studies are being done on sleeplessness. So far, the studies are showing that most people are genetically ďwiredĒ when it comes to their sleep patterns.

When people prefer to sleep isnít actually just a personal choice. People who just canít get out of the bed in the morning are probably wired differently than those who spring out of bed raring to go at 5 a.m. Those same early risers are most likely early-to-bedders, too.

Some people are just beginning to rev up for the evening when the late night talk shows are coming on TV. These ďnight owlsĒ are likely being controlled by contributions from multiple genes that are also influenced by environmental factors.

Of course, there are stress factors that also affect a personís ability to snooze. If people canít seem to calm their brains down enough after a hectic day at the office, it can have adverse effects on their nightís sleep. Other factors such as light and noise and temperature also play into the equation of getting a good nightís sleep -- not to mention a good pillow.

Most sleep labs use rats to study sleep deprivation and sleep waves. But there are also human sleep labs that use volunteers, often college students looking to pick up a bit of extra change for their studies.

I read that the University of Southern Mississippi is currently doing sleep research using birds.

USM is studying sleep loss and its effect on migratory birds. Most birds are active during the day and migrate during the night. Research shows that the birds make up for their lost sleep at night by taking little ďbird naps,Ē some while they are in flight. I guess they just put it on autopilot and drift off. I wonder if thatís the same thing that happens when a person drives somewhere half conscious and then later doesnít recall anything they passed on the way there.

The studies show that just half of the birdís brain sleeps while the other half remains active.

Scientists are trying to find out exactly what the purpose of sleep is. So far, they are learning that sleep enhances antibodies that keep people healthy. Sleep actually bolsters the immune system. Even one night of sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on oneís immune system -- not to mention the fact that daytime sleepiness can cause people to be less productive on the job and maybe even to take dangerous chances, especially while driving a vehicle.

Iím one who likes a good eight hours of sleep a night, but seldom gets it. There are some weeks when Iím on major sleep deficit and Iíd be hard pressed to perform any mathematical tasks like the study folks had to do. Iíd like to figure out how those migrating birds rest just one side of their brain at a time, and I could just keep on going without wasting all that down time snoozing. Iíve always dreamed of being part of a sleep study. I think I missed my calling in life.


Chris Wilson is a longtime journalist, rooted for quite a while in North Mississippi. Sheís thinking of semi-retirement in order to write that great American novel!

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