Without sleep, humans become irritable, inefficient and accident prone - but HOW sleep heals us still isn't fully understood.
Psychologist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison thinks he has the answer to what our brains are doing as we sleep.
His theory is that the brain 'resets' itself - breaking connections made during the day so that the brain wakes up 'fresh' and ready to learn and process more information.
Giulio Tononi's theory is that the brain 'resets' itself - breaking connections made during the day so that the brain wakes up 'fresh' and ready to learn and process more information
Brain wave activitiy is particularly strong during sleep - a sign, Tononi thinks, that the brain is 'wiping out' unnecessary impressions.
The brain literally 'unwinds' during sleep - wiping itself clean in much the same way as a computer reboots.
Tononi's pioneering research into sleep - using human volunteers, rats, and computer simulations - is considered to offer some of the first insights into the 'purpose' of sleep.
His understanding of the brain and how it 'rewires' itself may also lead to a deeper understanding of what consciousness itself is.
‘Sleep may be the price you pay so your brain can be plasticthe next day,’ says Tononi in one of his papers on the subject.
His hypothesis is that sleep allows the brain to regroupafter a hard day of learning by giving the synapses, which increase in strengthduring the day, a chance to damp down to baseline levels.
Tononi's lab studies have shown that animal brains tend to 'shut down' sections when sleep-deprived, suggesting there is an important physical function to sleep
This is important because the brain uses up to 80 percent ofits energy to sustain synaptic activity.
Sleep may also be important for consolidating new memories,and to allow the brain to ‘forget’ the random, unimportant impressions of theday, so there is room for more learning the next day.
This could be why the brain waves are so active duringcertain periods of sleep.
‘While there may still be no consensus on why animals needto sleep, it would seem that searching for a core function of sleep,particularly at the cellular level, is still a worthwhile exercise,’ sheconcludes.
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