We spend a third of our life time for sleep. So why do we sleep? This is a question that has baffled scientists for centuries and the answer is, no one is really sure. Some believe that sleep gives the body a chance to recuperate from the day's activities but in reality, the amount of energy saved by sleeping for even eight hours is miniscule - about 50 kCal, the same amount of energy in a piece of toast.
We have to sleep because it is essential to maintaining normal levels of cognitive skills such as speech, memory, innovative and flexible thinking. In other words, sleep plays a significant role in brain development.
While we may not often think about why we sleep, most of us acknowledge at some level that sleep makes us feel better. We feel more alert, more energetic, happier, and better able to function following a good night of sleep. However, the fact that sleep makes us feel better and that going without sleep makes us feel worse only begins to explain why sleep might be necessary
Our body regulates sleep in much the same way that they regulate eating, drinking and breathing. This suggests that sleep serves a similar critical role in our health and well-being.
One way to think about the function of sleep is to compare it to another of our life-sustaining activities: eating. Hunger is a protective mechanism that has evolved to ensure that we consume the nutrients our bodies require to grow, repair tissues, and function properly. And although it is relatively easy to grasp the role that eating serves— given that it involves physically consuming the substances our bodies need—eating and sleeping are not as different as they might seem.
Both eating and sleeping are regulated by powerful internal drives. Going without food produces the uncomfortable sensation of hunger, while going without sleep makes us feel overwhelmingly sleepy. And just as eating relieves hunger and ensures that we obtain the nutrients we need; sleeping relieves sleepiness and ensures that we obtain the sleep we need. Still, the question remains: Why do we need sleep at all? Is there a single primary function of sleep, or does sleep serve many functions?
Deep sleep coincides with the release of growth hormone in children and young adults. Many of the body's cells also show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during deep sleep. Since proteins are the building blocks needed for cell growth and for repair of damage from factors like stress and ultraviolet rays, deep sleep may truly be "beauty sleep." Activity in parts of the brain that control emotions, decision-making processes, and social interactions is drastically reduced during deep sleep, suggesting that this type of sleep may help people maintain optimal emotional and social functioning while they are awake.
Research suggests that sleep plays an important role in memory, both before and after learning a new task.
The Learning Process and Sleep
Sleep, learning, and memory are complex phenomena that are not entirely understood. However, animal and human studies suggest that the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory. Research suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.
Although the exact mechanisms are not known, learning and memory are often described in terms of three functions. Acquisition refers to the introduction of new information into the brain. Consolidation represents the processes by which a memory becomes stable. Recall refers to the ability to access the information (whether consciously or unconsciously) after it has been stored.
Each of these steps is necessary for proper memory function. Acquisition and recall occur only during wakefulness, but research suggests that memory consolidation takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. Although there is no consensus about how sleep makes this process possible, many researchers think that specific characteristics ofbrainwaves during different stages of sleep are associated with the formation of particular types of memory.