Despite being something we spend nearly a third of our lives doing, sleep is still not very well understood by the scientific community. While it’s well-documented that going without sleep has some serious negative consequences to one’s health, the purposes of and reasons why we need sleep aren’t fully explainable. Current theories suggest that sleep is a state of consciousness that the brain needs to process memories, regenerate cells, or maybe even serve as a vestigial protection against nocturnal predators that roamed the Earth when humans evolved. As more sleep research continues to look into the mysteries of sleep, some surprising results have been found.
Earlier this year, researchers at Oxford University reported that they found the “Sandman switch,” or part of the brain which turns consciousness ‘on’ and ‘off’ before and after sleep. And now just this month, a new paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences is claiming that the brain might enter a previously unknown state of consciousness when experiencing dreamless sleep.
The paper was published by a team of neuroscientists and psychologists from the University of British Columbia. According to their article, previous models of consciousness and unconsciousness fail to address a range of ‘in-between’ states experienced while sleeping:
Consciousness is often said to disappear in deep, dreamless sleep. We argue that this assumption is oversimplified. Unless dreamless sleep is defined as unconscious from the outset there are good empirical and theoretical reasons for saying that a range of different types of sleep experience, some of which are distinct from dreaming, can occur in all stages of sleep.
The researchers gathered evidence that many individuals encounter states of semi-consciousness during dreams in which they know they are dreaming but are not fully immersed. Other proposed sleep states include ones similar to those experienced during transcendental meditation, in which individuals reach a selfless, ego-free state while still retaining awareness that they are dreaming.
The scientists behind this study ultimately hope that their research might shine light on some of the more mysterious sleep disorders such as sleepwalking, sleep paralysis, or parasomnia. Once again, what was previously thought to be the work of spirits might have been shown to be the work of that mysterious wrinkled ball of fat we all carry around inside or skulls. Or wait, is it carrying us?