Keeping Your Brain Sharp

I’m a big fan of napping – who doesn’t love curling up on the couch and ignoring the world? And naps are actually good for you. It’s like pressing ‘restart’ during a long day and helps you come at problems with a clearer mind and a fresh perspective.

Why? Why do thoughts drag out as the night drags on? Why does your thinking turn ‘fuzzy’ without sleep? As it turns out, research recently reported in Nature shows that a fatigued brain might start sleeping long before we close our eyes.

In their study, the authors kept rats awake for long periods of time and then observed the neuronal activity in various parts of the brain. Typically, neurons in a sleeping brain alternate between an ‘on’ and ‘off’ state in a cyclic pattern, while an awake brain has only neurons in the ‘on’ state.

Unlike normal awake brains, the brains of sleep deprived rats showed alternating ‘on’ and ‘off’ activity – more typical of a sleeping brain – in localized sections of the cortex.

Like a laptop running on reserve power, there are limits that we refuse to acknowledge; when pushed to the edge, our brain does what it can to keep functioning and runs at an impaired level, resulting in reduced performance in tasks. Sharks and fish have adapted to their need for movement by only using selected regions of their brain during ‘sleep’. For humans, this localization of sleep or activity within the cortex can help explain sleepwalking.

Whether it’s to refresh your mind when studying for a test or even just for pleasure, don’t wait until you’re falling asleep in your chair before considering a nap. Chances are you’ll have been asleep (in one sense) long before.

By Chris Iversen