So...sleep is kind of weird, right? It has always been, and will likely continue to be, a bit of a mystery.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems like something that we should have evolved out of a few hundred thousand years ago. The fact that we fall into a near comatose state for a third of our day, every single day, leaving us vulnerable to whatever horrifying dangers we faced in the early days of civilization, makes me wonder how we ever made it this far as a species.
But it just goes to show you that whatever sleep does for us, it’s obviously vital to our health and well- being. If it wasn’t, those individuals who needed less sleep would have risen to the top of the gene pool a long, long time ago, and those that thrived on a lot of sleep would have been, well, eaten most likely...
Man, I'm pretty glad I'm alive now. Being eaten would suck.
As of yet, the scientific community hasn’t been able to tell us exactly why we sleep, but there is definitely a consensus among researchers (and new mothers) that adequate sleep is good for you in a whole bunch of ways.
We’re all familiar with the fact that we have a hard time focusing on information when we’re running on too little sleep. Absorbing information is only half the battle though.
Actually, if you really want to get technical, it’s only a third. Learning and memory are divided into three functions. Acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Put simply, you need to receive the info, then you need to stabilize the memory of it, and finally, you need to be able to access it when you’re watching “Jeopardy!” or in my life, playing HQ on my phone every night!
Acquisition and recall really only take place while you’re awake. Consolidation, on the other hand, “takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. The overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory.”1
So even if you manage to focus on what you’re learning and acquire the information, without sleep, that information won’t be properly stored in the brain, and when called upon to access it, you’ll find yourself drawing a blank.
Now, I’m a firm believer that learning and education should be a lifelong pursuit, but once we’re out of school, learning becomes substantially more optional. For your kids though, learning is their primary responsibility for the first 18-20 years of their lives, so considering how much they need to retain, the importance of a healthy sleep schedule is pretty dang obvious.
We all know that when we don’t get enough sleep, we get short-tempered and irritable. A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who experienced even partial sleep deprivation reported feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion. 2
This isn’t exactly new information. We’re all aware that we get emotional in very negative ways when we’re running on too little sleep, but why? Why shouldn’t it have similar effects to say, a few glasses of wine? Why doesn’t sleep deprivation cause us to start telling people we love them or develop an overconfidence in our karaoke abilities?
Again, it’s a bit of a mystery, but some researchers have suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala. That’s the little almond-shaped part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of, among other things, anger and fear.
These amped-up feelings can lead to an overall sense of stress and hostility towards others, which is probably at least part of the reason why you lost it at your co-worker when he asked you how your weekend was. The other reason being that he regularly uses finger guns and says things like, “Sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays,” so sleep deprivation isn’t the only bad guy here.