Wake up. Let’s look into sleep deprivation.

March 10, 2023


Graphic illustartion by Larry Wang and Audrey Sun

The physical and emotional toll that sleep deprivation takes on one’s body is clear through two phenomena caused by natural brain activity: daydreaming and REM-sleep dreaming.

77% of Lynbrook students sleep for an average of fewer than seven hours daily according to an Instagram survey of 201 respondents. When compared to the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep the American Academy of Sleep Medicine urges teenagers to strive for, many Lynbrook students are getting insufficient sleep, indicating a clear trend. Sleep deprivation has become increasingly common among teenagers, as pushing sleep to lower priorities has become normalized amid frenetic schedules. While often sacrificed for academic work, depleted sleep ironically incurs larger issues with alertness and efficiency in the classroom. The physical and emotional toll that sleep deprivation takes on one’s body is clear through two phenomena caused by natural brain activity: daydreaming and REM-sleep dreaming.

Snapping back to reality

While dreaming is most associated with sleeping, daydreaming is a common phenomenon while one is conscious. A daydream is a series of wandering thoughts or fantasies that occur while a person is awake, usually due to a lack of external stimuli. 

Daydreaming is a natural human mechanism that involves imagining places or people, occurring during moments of idleness or when working on tasks, such as doing household chores, commuting or attending a meeting. While daydreaming, humans direct their attention away from external stimuli, allowing mental images, thoughts and scenarios to be pictured. Not only can daydreaming be made up of fictional characters or scenarios, but it can also concern past experiences.

Daydreaming is shown to serve many benefits. This form of mental exercise allows humans to explore creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills, which can help foster innovation, enhance productivity, promote adaptability and encourage critical thinking. Moreover, daydreaming can help process emotions and past experiences, drawing new insights and perspectives that may not have been considered before.

“Daydreaming allows me to drift away from where I am,” sophomore Kashish Mittal said. “It gives me a moment to be by myself and relax.”

However, daydreaming also has its drawbacks, most commonly when it becomes excessive and starts interfering with daily tasks. Maladaptive daydreaming, also known as excessive daydreaming, may lead to decreased productivity and isolation, which diminishes the ability to focus on tasks.

Of 213 Lynbrook students, 58% of respondents voted that they often or always felt fatigued at school. Sleep deprivation, or poor quality sleep, is shown to correlate with daydreaming. A 2014 study conducted by Richard Carciofo et al., found that higher frequencies of mind wandering and daydreaming were associated with poorer sleep quality, particularly with increased sleep latency, night-time disturbance, daytime dysfunction and daytime sleepiness.

“People not getting sufficient hours of sleep, along with possible underlying health conditions, can lead to feeling sleepy in the daytime,” said Cheri Mah, M.D., M.S., sleep physician and Adjunct Lecturer at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center. “Underlying health conditions including depression, insomnia or sleep-disorders can also result in daytime sleepiness.”

When sleep-deprived, people are more prone to daydreaming as a way to counteract the lack of rest. Not only may sleep deprivation lead to a higher rate of daydreaming, but it may also affect what one daydreams about. Lack of sleep, often associated with increased irritability, can lead to daydreams about negative, worrying scenarios such as catastrophic events and unrealistic expectations, which may lead to obsessive thoughts and self-criticism. 

“External stimuli, like physical activity and caffeine, will mask both accumulated sleep debt and daytime sleepiness,” Mah said. “However, it’s just a temporary measure. The sleep debt is still there.”

When people don’t get the amount of sleep their body requires, it can lead to daytime sleepiness. This not only results in increased tiredness, but also leads to microsleeps. Microsleeps are very short periods of sleep, usually lasting only a few seconds.

“Although you may be motivated to stay awake, there are times when tiredness overpowers the motivational control, causing a lapse in attention,” said Erika Yamazaki, Northwestern University neuroscience Ph.D. student. “That can become a microsleep and can be really dangerous when driving.”

Daydreaming increases creativity and imagination, however, it also leads to decreased productivity and attention span. Good quality sleep, sleep that lasts between eight and 10 hours a day, reduces the negative effects of both sleep deprivation and daydreaming. Sleep deprivation is shown to directly influence the likeliness of daydreaming, which decreases productivity. With the same workload left, teenagers are seen prioritizing finishing tasks over sleep, resulting in an endless cycle that leads to tiredness and grogginess.

“Whenever I get less sleep than usual, I always fall asleep in class and feel groggy throughout the next day,” freshman Charlotta Dai said. “But more sleep allows me to have more energy and perform better at school.”

Good night, sweet dreams

A grotesque plaster statue is chasing you. You fall into a manhole and land on the sandy beaches of Antarctica. Suddenly gravity dissipates and you find yourself floating through the clouds below. Fortunately, you wake up and forget most, if not all, of the visually and emotionally bizarre adventure you’ve just endured — it was simply a dream.

Of the two major phases of sleep cycles, rapid eye movement sleep, from which principal dreams emerge, is the second stage of sleep that enhances memory and mood and triggers literal rapid eye movement. During a typical night of sleep, a person will cycle through alternating stages of non-REM and REM sleep in 90- to 120-minute intervals. 

“Emotional processing of waking memories occurs during REM sleep,” said Erika Yamazaki, Northwestern University neuroscience Ph.D. student. “We believe that it’s the processing of these memories that may be connected to dreaming.”  

REM sleep plays a significant role in boosting the immune system, consolidating memory and regulating mood. Thus, those unable to satisfy their body’s craving for REM sleep may feel fatigued and lethargic in the daytime.

“I run cross country and track, so sufficient sleep is really important for my speed, stamina and recovery between races,” junior Adit Kantak said. “Once I slept for five hours on a race day and I could feel that there was significantly less power in my legs than usual.”

REM sleep is commonly known as dreaming sleep, as dreams are stimulated by changes in activity levels of various regions of the brain during REM sleep. Magnetic resonance imaging studies have established that the prefrontal cortex — responsible for cognitive behavior and logical decision-making — is suppressed during this stage of sleep, temporarily deactivating rational thoughts. Similar studies have also shown stronger-than-normal activity in visual, motor and emotional regions of the brain during this stage of sleep.

“We don’t know why exactly we have dreams or what they mean but we suspect they help consolidate memories,” said Cheri Mah, M.D., M.S., sleep physician and Adjunct Lecturer at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center. “There’s a lot of theories addressing this question, but the field of sleep is still very young and research is still ongoing.”

Scientists have long pondered the theory of dreams’ being epiphenomenal by-products of REM sleep, suggesting that dreams serve no significant purpose to the human body. One theoretical framework, however, postulates the importance of both sufficient REM sleep and dreaming for a good night’s sleep. UC Berkeley neuroscience and psychology professor Matthew Walker proposed this framework and referred to REM-sleep dreaming in his book, “Why We Sleep,” as “overnight therapy,” revealing two main functions of dreams: nurturing one’s mental health and inspiring creativity and problem-solving. 

During a 24-hour day, REM sleep is the only time in which a person’s brain is completely devoid of noradrenaline, an anxiety-triggering molecule. As a person enters the dreaming state, concentrations of noradrenaline begin to shut off while key emotion- and memory-related structures within the brain are reactivated. REM-sleep loss encourages higher levels of noradrenaline, thus increasing restlessness and anxiety. A common example of this phenomenon can be seen in human tendencies to stress and overthink at night and feel better in the morning.

“Sleeping is a pretty big stress reliever for me,” Kantak said. “Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep at night because of stress, but when I wake up in the morning I realize that everything is alright.”

 In addition to its mental-health benefits, brain activity during REM-sleep dreaming also extracts commonalities from knowledge obtained during the day by associating distant memories beyond the narrow scope of the conscious mind. One example Walker uses to illustrate this finding is language acquisition in babies: during their REM sleep, babies unconsciously extract the rules of grammar from daytime experiences, despite lacking explicit awareness of the rules. 

“Sometimes I think of really good solutions to life problems or conversations in my dreams,” sophomore Rhea Soni said. “I try to remember the solutions when I wake up but it feels like it’s just in the corner of my mind and I can’t reach it.”

Achieving sufficient REM sleep is crucial in optimizing creativity and consolidating memories from waking experiences. Mah describes the concept of memory consolidation as needing REM sleep to hit the “save” button on the material one has just studied; without that sleep, it would be harder to recall those memories in subsequent days.

Having a good night’s sleep is crucial to optimizing not only health but also performance during the day. To prioritize academics, social life or health, one must first prioritize sleep.

“It’s not impossible to balance your sleep, academics and social life simultaneously,” Mah said. “What you invest in your sleep is going to impact your performance in everything else — how you do in school, how you interact with friends and how you feel in general — so it’s important to put sleep first.”

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