Sleep is another way of feeding our mind. What is most important about sleep is that our brain needs more of it than we currently tend to have. Although individual needs differ, and generally as we get older we need less sleep, most of us function best on about seven and a half hours. There are well-known exceptions, of course, like Margaret Thatcher, who apparently only needed a few hours.
However, for most people, if we don't get enough sleep, then, not surprisingly, our brain functions at well below its capacity. That is why sleep deprivation is an effective way of breaking down people's resistance.
Sir Michael Bichard, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment in the UK, was categorical in his thinking about this: "I know I am much more effective when I am fresher and fitter." And yet, in some circles, it is almost a badge of honor to talk of late nights and excessive hours working, as if they merited congratulation rather than sympathetic disapproval!
It is not simply the number of hours' sleep that matters. During the day, your mind is constantly taking in new experiences. Our brain needs deep sleep, sometimes called REM sleep (rapid eye movement), when we are also often dreaming. It is at these times that your brain is processing the experiences of the day.
Studies in animals have shown that the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is being produced in REM sleep, a chemical essential for healthy neural networks and therefore for memory. Consequently, deep sleep has been shown to aid the process of forming memories. When your brain is asleep, its speed slows right down for most of the time, producing what are called theta and delta waves. Recently it has been suggested that, during REM sleep, your brain also transmits at an extremely fast rate, about 40 cycles per second, and these have been called gamma waves.
It is no accident that you say you will "sleep on it." A number of researchers have noticed that if you review something before you go to sleep and again when you wake up, you tend to remember more of it. I know this works for me. When I have a particularly complex presentation to make, I find this technique helps me to master my subject much more effectively.
Jayne-Anne Gadhia consciously uses the power of sleep:
I go to bed worrying about something and when I wake up I have an answer. I now deliberately pop a question into my mind before I go to sleep and ask myself the answer in the morning as I take my shower!
In fact, when we are asleep, we go through a number of cycles, each taking about one and a half hours, each moving from a lighter sleep into a deeper sleep and back again. Going through a number of these complete cycles is critical for our mental health.
Darkness is important for encouraging the pineal gland to produce the neurotransmitter melatonin, an essential chemical for ensuring that our body clock functions effectively. A dramatic example of how our brains are affected by upset time rhythms is experienced whenever we fly across major time zones. (It turns out that our natural body clock is closer to the lunar cycle of 25 hours rather than the solar rhythm of 24 hours.)
It is has been confirmed that there really are some people who favor the mornings and some the evenings. There are also distinctly better times of the day for doing things. In the mornings, most people take in new information best, while the afternoons— except immediately after lunch—are better for reviewing and processing. However, there are significant individual variations from this general pattern.
Days are, broadly speaking, times for taking in experiences, nights for processing them. In addition, at a micro level within the day, Georgi Lozanov has suggested that we need to aim for periods of high energy, then relaxation, then energy, then relaxation, and so on.
Most of this is common sense. But somehow, perhaps because we lead such busy lives, the powerful role of sleep is often forgotten, as are the natural cycles that necessitate processing time as well as task time.
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