Of Things Big and Small

Surrendering to sleep

‘Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!’
Sleep... Is it the death of each day’s life?
Does it provide the care for and is it the balm for hurt minds?
Does it nourish our life?

Are these Shakespearean glorifications of sleep justified?

Almost all creatures, including humans, sleep. Animals are most vulnerable during this period of non-consciousness. They can become easy preys. Yet they sleep... some animals like dolphins keep part of their brains awake, some take turns, some sleep standing, some sleep flying like the eagle... but they do sleep.

On an average, we sleep for a third of our lifetime. A good sleep is something everyone wants. Wisdom through the ages has many sleep-sayings... A man requires six hours of sleep, a woman seven and an idiot more than that. Prime ministers will require more than that - Mr. Deve Gowda, our ex-PM, would definitely agree.

How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads, to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly and brings nothing but sweet dreams - So says Bram Stoker. Being the creator of the vampire Dracula, he would surely know the value of sleep having disrupted many a dream with his vampire nightmares!

Legends have Rip Van Winkle sleeping for years and Kumbakarnan sleeping for months at a stretch. The untimely sleep of the hare cost the race. Sleep, the unconscious activity is seen as an unproductive activity by many.

Bhagavad Gita advises a moderation in this tamasic activity of sleep.

Let us deliberate on the reasons for sleep.

Why do we sleep?

Of many unanswered questions which have been puzzling man in this age of reason and technology, this is another one. The only concrete reason emerging is that we sleep because we feel sleepy. Scientists are still unable to firmly find a rationale for sleeping and it is even questioned whether sleep is nature’s mistake in the evolution of life. But there is research which supports that lack of sleep affects the brain adversely. Sleep could be a memory consolidation process, in which some things learned while awake are stored to memory and unwanted details are discarded. But one thing appears certain: We need sleep; else the body/brain system fails.

Sleep disorders range from fatal to fairly troublesome. The fatal one is ‘fatal familial insomnia’ which is a genetic disorder. Initially, the affected person has no tendency to nap and the natural sleepiness characteristic slowly disappears. Towards terminal stages, the person cannot sleep at all.

Sleep apnoea, where the sleep-induced muscle relaxation closes the air passage of the throat, is another sleep-related problem. As the brain suffocates due to lack of oxygen, the sleeper awakes and normalcy returns. Thus the sleep is regularly disturbed. A more common disease is insomnia, where people cannot sleep for any apparent reason. This general sleeplessness is quite common all over the world and the consumptions of sleeping pills are ever-increasing.

Medical research is trying to differentiate sleep from consciousness by inducing waves into the brains of sleeping humans. The brain’s electrical signals change pattern in accordance with the brain activity. During the sleep phases, the body temperature, muscle activity, eye movements as well as the heart rate undergo changes. By studying these, scientists are trying to find answers/reasons for sleep problems. Strangely, research shows that older people sleep well than the younger both in quantity and quality!

Reasons for sleeplessness include depression, work stress (Bulldog bosses, career progress hindered by crab-like colleagues), economic/financial anxieties (stock market swings), menopause, restless limbs, pain in the limbs, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is also advocated where one follows healthy rules to get sleep:

Go to bed only when you feel sleepy.
Sleep in a dark room.
Do not exercise/ watch TV/drink coffee, tea and the like before sleeping.
Feel positive that you will sleep.

Of course, Indian Yoga helps, many say. Some say our conditioned evolution itself could be the reason for sleep problem: We have been mentally programmed to sleep in the night and work in the day. Industrialisation, work-shifts and job-specific demands have made us move away from biological programmes which are conducive to our bodies. Our ancestors let nature prevail on their circadian rhythms (cycle of behaviour in a 24 hour-day) and slept more than us and also better. In this light, one habit which is to be appreciated in the human evolution is the siesta. The circadian rhythms dip after a heavy (lunch) meal and rest becomes a necessity. Surveys show that people who take a post-lunch nap are more productive than the workaholics who burn themselves and the lights.

Fatigue is another problem in all professions. In aeroplane flying, ship navigation and material production platforms... human errors due to lack of rest/sleep is a perennial problem which industries are trying to cope with.

Bertrand Russell, a great thinker of our times, opined that man should not kill himself working all day and in the nights. Work may occupy a man’s day for about four hours. For the rest of the time, man should sit and observe nature. I do tend to agree with him (my employer differs, of course).

Music is a palliative remedy advocated by many for good sleep.

The Beatles lyrics are true....

Sleep pretty darling, do not cry,
I will sing you a lullaby...

The proverb goes: A good laugh and long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book. For a good laugh, try a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Get between the sheets. For immediate sleep, put on some slow, soft music... I suggest Nilambari or YadhukulakhAboji raga......

The music seeps in...

My ventrolateral preoptic nucleus is triggered by adenosine, controlled by the hypothalumus. My histamine levels are dropping... My alertness is reducing... The thalamus is blocking all the information collected during the day... I close my eyes... Sensing the darkness, melatonin from the pineal gland soothes the brain to sleep...

I undulate between light sleep and wakefulness... As I drift in and out, my brain waves are slowing down... Now, I sink into deep sleep. With my rapid eye movements, I dream... I dream...

The hippocampus replays the memories... but the ‘pons’ stops me from acting my dream.... My cerebral cortex is fabricating a story from the information gathered during the day... Dreams blossom like giant flowers and are engulfed and gobbled by the pitcher plant of my subconscious shelters...

But I do not wish to wake up from this slumber into which the music has pushed me into...

I do not wish my retina to sense the light. I do not wish to open my eyes. I do not want my biological clock to wake up my suprachiasmatic nucleus and arouse me to face another day.

I wish not the dream but the sleep to last forever and ever...

Oct 05, 2010
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Rajoo Balaji

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