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Nearly every night of our lives, we undergo a startling metamorphosis. Our eyes, however, periodically dart about behind closed lids as if seeing, and the tiny muscles in our middle ear, even in silence, move as though hearing. Everything we’ve learned about sleep has emphasized its importance to our mental and physical health.Our brain profoundly alters its behavior and purpose, dimming our consciousness. We are sexually stimulated, men and women both, repeatedly. Our sleep-wake pattern is a central feature of human biology—an adaptation to life on a spinning planet, with its endless wheel of day and night.These half-second bursts, called spindles, indicate that we’ve entered stage 2.
When we’re fully awake, neurons form a jostling crowd, a cellular lightning storm.
When they fire evenly and rhythmically, expressed on an electroencephalogram, or EEG, by , it indicates that the brain has turned inward, away from the chaos of waking life.
The waking brain is optimized for collecting external stimuli, the sleeping brain for consolidating the information that’s been collected.
At night, that is, we switch from recording to editing, a change that can be measured on the molecular scale.
We’re not just rotely filing our thoughts—the sleeping brain actively curates which memories to keep and which to toss. Sleep reinforces our memory so powerfully—not just in stage 2, where we spend about half our sleeping time, but throughout the looping voyage of the night—that it might be best, for example, if exhausted soldiers returning from harrowing missions did not go directly to bed.
To forestall , the soldiers should remain awake for six to eight hours, according to neuroscientist Gina Poe at the University of California, Los Angeles.
At the same time, our sensory receptors are muffled, and soon we’re asleep.
Scientists call this stage 1, the shallow end of sleep. Then, ascending from deep in the brain, comes a series of electric sparks that zap our cerebral cortex, the pleated gray matter covering the outer layer of the brain, home of language and consciousness.
We prefer to be in one realm or another, awake or asleep.
So we turn off the lights and lie in bed and shut our eyes.