Why Do We Sleep? New Research Indicates It Might Not Be For The Reasons We Think

It's a question that's been around for thousands of years: Why do we sleep? It's one of the body's most vital functions; sleep deprivation has been linked to memory problems, poor hand-eye coordination, decreased functioning of the immune system, and a wide range of other effects that worsen the longer you go without rest. In fact, there's evidence that two weeks of constant sleep deprivation can literally kill an organism, although humans can't truly stay awake for that long — people who experience extreme sleep deprivation report periods of "microsleep" in which they briefly, involuntarily lose consciousness. All those times you woke up drooling into your laptop keyboard during finals in college? That was your brain's way of telling you to lay off the energy drinks and take a nap.

Clearly, sleep is an integral part of our brain's functioning, but the scientific community has never quite settled on a theory explaining why it's so important. Although there are a number of well-regarded ideas about the subject, current thinking boils down to this: Sleep is the time for our bodies to repair themselves and our brains to make changes to structure and organization, all while conserving energy. However, recent research from Brandeis University may contradict these theories — particularly the idea that sleep allows us to "rebalance" our brains.

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As Science Daily explains, some researchers believe that our brains become saturated with information throughout the day, which overloads neuronal networks. When we sleep, our brain takes the opportunity to return to "neuronal homeostasis." According to a study published in Cell, though, this process may actually occur when we're awake. Researchers analyzed the neuronal activity of rats for nine days, during both sleep and wake periods, and the results directly contradicted the "rebalancing" theory. Based on the data, the process occurred exclusively when the rats were awake.

Of course, one study doesn't overturn decades of research on sleep, but it does raise questions for further exploration: Why don't we "rebalance" when we're asleep? If it only happens when we're awake, what is our brain doing when we're unconscious? Is all this talk about sleep making anyone else tired? (Perhaps that last one isn't especially scientific, but it's a valid question.)

In short, there's still no consensus about why we sleep, but it's certainly not for lack of trying. In the meantime, remember that sleep deprivation is not something to mess with — put down the schematics for a coffee IV, and get some rest.

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Images: Robin Yang/Unsplash, Giphy (2)