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Why Do We Sleep?
With brain scans, scientists have learned much about what happens in our heads during sleep, but they still can't answer the simple question: why do we sleep?
We spend one-third of our lives asleep—for an average American, that's over 26 years—yet sleep remains one of the biggest mysteries of neuroscience. With brain scans, scientists have learned much about what happens in our heads during sleep, but they still can't answer the simple question: why do we sleep? There are theories, of course (summarized in the takeaway below), but one thing is very clear: without sleep, our brain begins to malfunction.
Columbia University neuropsychologist Yaakov Stern tells Big Think that people's abilities to perform simple tasks drops dramatically after 48 hours without sleep. But some people are affected more than others. What Stern's research hoped to answer was why some brains are better able to cope with sleeplessness than others, with the hopes of potentially minimizing our biological need for sleep.
First, Stern located a neural network, mostly in the occipital and parietal lobes of the brain, that seemed to determine whether a person coped well or poorly without sleep. Then he used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to stimulate these areas that were affected by sleep deprivation. "Our hope was that if we stimulated that area, we could improve people’s performance," he tells Big Think. "And what we found, which was surprising to me was that, first of all, the stimulation to the occipital area did help people respond a little faster compared to some other area that had nothing to do with the network. And the people who benefited most from that stimulation were the people who had showed the most reduction in the network, which is another confirmation that we were finding something interesting."
Stern's studies may suggest future ways to mitigate sleep deprivation, but they don't lead us any closer to understanding the function of sleep. Nor do they explain the nightly hallucinations we call dreams. Dreams occur mostly during REM sleep, a stage of sleep characterized by heightened brain activity. During a normal night of sleep, the brain cycles repeated back and forth between REM sleep and three stages of non-REM sleep: Stage 1, the twilight period between sleeping and waking which occurs only at the beginning of sleep; Stage 2, light sleep which accounts for 60% of night's rest; and Stage 3, deep sleep, during which most sleep disorders occur.
In her Big Think interview, Shelby Harris, the director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, told us that we normally cycle through these stages five or six times in a night and that REM sleep (and therefore dreaming) becomes more prevalent the long
er we sleep. "That’s why people tend to remember their dreams in the morning a little bit better," she explains. But what should we do with the fuzzy dream images that we do manage to hold onto? Are they really the "golden highway to the unconscious," as Freud believed? Can we learn more about ourselves by trying to interpret them?
Harris doesn't think so. As she explains in the video below, our understanding of dreams has changed dramatically in the past century. Freud and Jung believed that dreams are the way that the subconscious communicates with the conscious mind. If a person experiences anxiety or fear in a dream, analyzing the dream might help him understand why he is anxious in the first place and what he could do to mitigate that anxiety during the day. But modern theories don't place as much stock in the actual content of the dreams. Harris thinks dreams are the brain's method of sorting memories and experiences from the previous day, deciding which ones to retain and which ones to discard.
Though scientists haven't found conclusive evidence for why our brains need so much sleep, there are some interesting theories:
Information processing theory — Several studies have suggested that REM sleep and/or non-REM sleep might be important for the brain's ability to process and consolidate memories from the previous day, forming new neural networks and strengthening others. Related studies have also suggested that sleep helps clear away unimportant information, making room for new neural connections.
Damage reversal theory — During waking hours, neurons in the brain are subjected to the wear-and-tear of oxidative stress caused by free radicals; one theory holds that the cool-down period of sleep help to regulate homeostasis in the body and brain and to repair any damage that has occurred during waking.
Adaptive inactivity theory — Last year UCLA neuroscientist Jerome Siegel proposed that sleep might not be physiologically necessary to animals at all. He hypothesized that rather than serving some universally vital, but unknown, function in animals, sleep actually emerged because of its evolutionary benefits: sleep optimizes the timing and duration of behavior, conserving energy and protecting them from certain dangers. Across the animal kingdom there is wide variability in sleep duration, and Siegel suggests that ecological variables more so than biological needs dictate the timing and duration of sleep for different species.
— "Sleep viewed as a state of adaptive inactivity" (2009) published by Jerome Siegel in Nature
— Time magazine article about our biological need for sleep
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Stress and anxiety therapist Dr. Amelia Aldao suggests waiting 60 seconds before reacting to a stressor, giving your rational mind time to catch up to your emotions.
- Stress is a complex defense mechanism that we experience in relation to either internal or external threats.
- Self-inflicted stress is stress we inflict upon ourselves with our emotional and behavioral responses to certain situations. An example of self-inflicted stress would be your car breaking down on the morning of an important meeting because your "check engine" let had been on, but you ignored it.
- There are a few ways for you to cope with self-inflicted internal and external stressors, put forth by researchers and therapists.
What is “self-inflicted stress”?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjg3NDgwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5ODUyNzQ5M30.plH9mP77sPf3-un8g7KNIU84ad6zVgKIbQONcopUGK0/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C52%2C0%2C52&height=700" id="ee733" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0ba6b904a1542563f02dfe038f18fe50" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="concept of stress businesswoman feeling stressed at her desk" />
Stress is a complex defence mechanism that each of us experiences differently depending on our personality and the circumstances of the situation.
Photo by Kite_rin on Shutterstock<p>Stress is an adaptation of a living organism to internal or external threats. It's a complex defense mechanism that each of us experiences in vastly different ways depending on various factors such as personality, causal factors, and circumstance.</p><p>Studies show that positive emotions (happiness, comfort, pleasure, etc) allow us to consider a larger set of options in order to make faster, smarter decisions. The opposite is also true - unpleasant emotions (anger, stress, fear, etc.) overwhelm our rational minds and impact our behavior in ways that damage our ability to make smart, rational choices. </p><p>Stressors can be either external or internal, and this greatly impacts how we react to that stressful situation. </p><p><strong>Examples of self-inflicted internal stress (stress we inflict on ourselves by how we manage expectations, time, relationships, and emotions) can include:</strong> </p><ul><li>Putting pressure on yourself to excel at something within an unrealistic timespan.</li><li>Negative self-talk after not being able to complete something (realistic or not). </li><li>Fear of public speaking, thinking you're going to make a mistake in front of everyone even if you're prepared.</li><li>Not having enough time in the day to complete your "to-do" list and having thoughts of not being good enough because you didn't complete an unrealistic goal. </li><li>An "all or nothing" attitude (example: if I can't get everything on my list done today I just won't do anything at all." </li></ul><p>In more serious situations, these kinds of internal stressors can lead to feelings of anxiety and/or depression. </p><p><strong>Examples of self-inflicted external stress can include:</strong> </p><ul><li>Planning a vacation in a time of budget cuts at work only to discover that your salary has been lowered in a time where you've spent more money than normal. </li><li>Procrastinating to study for an upcoming exam or presentation and then staying up all night the day before. </li><li>Ignoring the "check engine" light in your car only to have it break down in a moment of urgency (picking a child up from school, on your way to a meeting, etc). </li></ul>
How to manage your self-inflicted stress<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjg3NDgwMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTUxNjY2MX0.UvFSTWkXcFi4qIqv1moPKac3KIPJugywdeSePEw2Upo/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C103%2C0%2C1&height=700" id="c0a57" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6a683cb20ee3a37aa850b32b39560db9" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="concept stress man squeezing happy face stress ball" />
A tip: wait one full minute before doing anything in reaction to the stressor.
Photo by Obak on Shutterstock<p>Over time, stress can damage areas of your life (adding even more stress) such as you having trouble sleeping, losing your appetite, losing interest in daily activities due to stress. Symptoms that you are stressed can include things like irritability, headaches/migraines, stomach pains, and unbalanced emotions.</p> <p>How do you cope with stress? There are a few different methods that are specifically designed to help you overcome self-inflicted stressors in your life. </p> <p><strong>Take a full 60 seconds of pause before doing anything.<br></strong>The 60 Second Method is simple: wait one minute before doing anything in reaction to the stressor. It can be as simple as that, according to OCD, stress, anxiety and depression therapist <a href="https://www.togethercbt.com/groups" target="_blank">Dr. Amelia Aldao</a>.</p> <p>"In particular," she explains in <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sweet-emotion/202003/the-60-second-approach-managing-emotions" target="_blank">this Psychology Today article</a>, "don't follow what the emotion is telling you to do. Don't send that angry text, don't decline the invitation to present at work, don't tell your potential date you're too busy this week…" </p> <p>While this is extremely difficult for some people, pausing before reacting to a stressful situation gives your "rational brain" the ability to catch up. The best thing you can do is "stay with your emotion", according to Dr. Aldao, "but don't act it out." </p> <p>Experiencing the emotions is a good thing, we should never ignore how certain situations (even stressful ones) make us feel - but acting from a place of pure emotion (instead of thinking rationally about a proper action to follow the situation) can be detrimental to our mental health. </p> <p>According to Dr. Aldao, by the end of these 60 seconds, the intensity of your initial emotional reaction to the stressor should have somewhat subsided, allowing you to act from a place of rationality than a place of hasty emotion. </p> <p><strong>Prioritize your schedule and manage your time in a realistic way to motivate yourself.<br></strong>When it comes to internal stressors, much of the time we inflict these upon ourselves with ever-growing to-do lists and agendas that seem impossible to get through. This, in a way, is setting ourselves up for failure, because we aren't giving ourselves realistic goals that can encourage us to keep going.</p> <p>Instead, what you're doing, is designing a system that will make you feel more stressed the more work you do because even if you complete the work, it will seem as though you're falling behind. </p> <p>Instead, you should operate in a prioritization system. This can be done by splitting your to-do list into categories such as immediate (needs to be done in the next 3 hours), average (needs to be done sometime today) and non-critical (can easily be done tomorrow or the next day). </p> <p><strong>Ask for help and accept that you might not be able to accomplish everything on your own (or risk falling apart).<br></strong><a href="https://www.ruthklein.com/" target="_blank">Productivity coach Ruth Klein</a>, who has also authored a book called Time Management Secrets for Working Women, explains that you should start by asking yourself what the top three priorities for the day are. If there are more than three main things, delegate some of your work to someone else or push back deadlines if you can. It takes courage to admit you can't do it all, but ultimately that might be your best option.</p> <p>Waiting too long to ask for help, according to Klein, will eventually lead us into an "overwhelmed crisis" which tends to zap us of all energy and motivation. </p> <p><strong>Acknowledge that some (if not most) of your stress may be self-inflicted and make changes to fix that.<br></strong>While there are external stressors that we have little to no control over, there are lots of times when the stress we feel is self-inflicted. And when stress is self-inflicted it can also be self-solved, even when that feels impossible.</p> <p>When we are managing self-inflicted stress, it can be extremely difficult to see outside of our bubble of worry. We are focused on trying to beat the stress because we don't want to feel stressed - it seems like a solution. But if your stress isn't motivating you to get things done (and is instead actually hindering you from being productive) it's time for you to change how you react to your stress. </p> <p><em>"What can I do to lessen my stress right now?" </em></p> <p><a href="https://www.lessstresscoach.com/2016/12/21/do-you-suffer-from-self-inflicted-stress/" target="_blank">Jamie Sussel Turner</a> (otherwise known as "The Less Stress Coach") explains that asking yourself this question and acknowledging some of the harmful behaviors and emotions you're feeling that are negatively impacting your stress levels can help us re-evaluate the importance of the things we're trying to do. </p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
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