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Learning how to Learn: The Anatomy of Sleep

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by | Nov 21, 2018

Sleep. It’s something we (should) achieve a decent amount of every night. However, recently I have noticed a trend of people boasting 2am wake up calls, late night study sessions that run into the early morning and then back at it come 6am, running on four hours of sleep. Sleep is as essential to a functioning human body as is water and sustenance, lack of sleep can affect our mental health and daily functioning: in more ways than we yet understand. Knowing this, surely boasting less sleep than recommended, is counterproductive? You won’t be functioning at your best to take on the days challenges.

The American Sleep Association states that, until the 50s, many people thought of sleep as nothing time. We lie dormant, our body rests, but not a lot happens. Nowadays, we recognise that this just isn’t true. Our brains are extremely active during sleep, whether it is storing memories from the day, making sense of an idea we’ve been studying, processing emotions or general “housekeeping” which includes the removal of toxins that have built up during our time awake (as discussed by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke). Sleep has an affect on almost every single organ/system/tissue and it is therefore no surprise that lack of sleep has been linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety.


But what is sleep? 

Sleep begins in certain areas of the brain.  I always like to picture where things are happening in the body, to better memorise the processes. Another way to “chunk” information (Learning How to Learn: Chunking).  A quick whistle stop tour of the main areas in your brain, that play an important role in your ability to sleep:

  • The Hypothalamus contains clusters of cells known as suprachiasmatic nucleus, this plays a role in your behaviour rhythm by taking signals directly from your eyes and recognising when your environment is light during the day. This part of your brain also uses signals from Melatonin (released by your pineal gland) to alert your body that it is now dark outside and time to sleep.

  • Your Brain Stem plays an incredibly important role in REM sleep, by relaxing your muscles it ensures that you don’t end up acting out your dreams (that would be interesting!) It also controls transitions between wake and sleep.

  • The Thalamus is a relay runner for your cerebral cortex. During REM sleep, it jumps into action sending images, sounds and senses to the cortex and creating our dreams.

  • The chemical adenosine plays an important role in drowsiness and is released by your basal forebrain. An interesting fact is that the action of adenosine is blocked by caffeine; which is why coffee can make you less drowsy (and is probably not a great idea before bed).


These are the structures noted as important in the function of sleep, however it is a very complex function and still not completely understood! For example, we still have no idea why we dream! There are some hypotheses, perhaps dreaming allows us to process emotions? But we are still baffled! I don’t want to bog you down too much, if that is enough then I hope you have a slightly better understanding of the role of your brain in sleep and it’s importance! If you are keen to know more, check out the websites cited below or move on to my next blog post where I plan to discuss the sleep phases and how much sleep you should be getting!







Sleep is summarised fantastically on “Nature: International Journal of Science” website Nature: International Journal of Science “The Anatomy of Sleep” , if you feel like delving a little deeper. 









Content Cited from“Learning How to Learn”, Coursera the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke & the American Sleep Association 

Photo 1: Sourced on Google from Medical News Today 

Photo 2: Sourced on Google from Medical News Today 

Photo 3: Sourced on Google from Medical Art Library