Behind Shut Eyes

REM and Bees
We have evolved to sleep, but why? And why does it take up so much of our day? “Behind Shut Eyes” explores the history of sleep in science, and why it’s important for our bodies to function.
An illustration on a person with shopping bags on both arms and boxes piled high, with one free hand they have a cell phone in which they are adding a new item to their cart
By Jenaya Shaw with Canva.com.

Imagine it’s midnight. You’re cramming for yet another late assignment. An empty, crumpled chip bag and a cracked can of Monster sit distantly on your desk. Brain food, right? It’s okay, we’ve all been there.

You’re tired. Your head lolls on your spine like a spinning top. Eyes heavy, you catch yourself in the middle of a snore and jolt awake. But you decide to push through. Besides, if you can finish in the next 30 minutes, you’ll still get six hours of sleep!

Just enough to start this horrible cycle all over again—tomorrow.

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A good night’s sleep is essential for humans and animals alike. Even plants demonstrate some form of rest when the sun goes down.

But what’s the purpose of sleep? Why do we do it? As a psychology minor, sleep has always fascinated me. I love learning about the mechanisms of our brains, and because sleep research is so new, the learning has only begun.

The chemicals associated with sleep are what spark my curiosity, and researching REM sleep has me down one of many avenues of study.

Most people have probably heard of the term “REM sleep.” REM refers to something cool called “Rapid Eye-Movement,” but more specifics on that later.

Though scientists don’t yet understand the full complexities of why we sleep, we are starting to understand the components of sleep and how it affects our bodies. In other words, what happens during this process.

And what happens during REM is just one great thing about sleep.

Sleep research has been a recent spark of interest in the scientific community, as far as science goes. In 1951, the concept of REM was discovered by Eugene Aserinksy.

Prior to this, sleep was overlooked by scientists and regular citizens alike. It was thought of as an “off switch.” The Greeks thought it was caused simply by a lack of sensation or stimulation. Hypnos, the god of sleep, was twin brother to Thanatos, the god of death, which implies that

The Greeks believed sleep was in close relation to death and had little significance on our internal processes.

Boy were they wrong!

At the time, Aserinksy was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. REM became apparent to him after using an early (and slightly dodgy) design of an Offner Dyno Graph, the kind you might see in the movies. The Offner Dyno Graph, with a patient’s head tacked in wires, scribbles what we now know to be electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings on long graph paper. Today, it’s normally used for diagnosing epilepsy and other brain conditions that cause seizures.

In other words, this machine records brain activity.

Why is this discovery important?

When Aserinsky (and his mentor, Nathaniel Kleitman) published a paper on the REM discovery in 1953, it wasn’t necessarily the discovery itself that rocked the scientific community of the time. It was the Pandora’s Box of possibilities for sleep research both in psychology and physiology.

This phenomenon, REM, occurs, but why? What else lies beyond our shut eyes at night?

Facebook marketplace listing with photo of kitchen. This 1 bed 1 bath apartment is listed for $1,789 per month.
Eugene Aserinksy and his son Armond during his early studies of sleep. Taken from the Smithsonian article, The Stubborn Scientist Who Unraveled A Mystery of the Night (2003).

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During sleep, adults go through 4 different stages: Non-REM (NREM) 1-3 and REM sleep. As a brief overview, NREMs are the less active stages that occur when you first fall asleep and typically take up 75 to 80 percent of sleep duration. REM sleep is active, as the name suggests. Vivid dreams occur in this stage, and the body is limp to stop people from acting out their dreams (except for sleepwalkers, but that’s another story). REM is the remaining 20 percent or so of sleep, and usually occurs at the 7 to 8-hour mark of time spent asleep.

Then, the cycle repeats.

REM is incredibly important for our regenerative processes during sleep. You’ve also probably heard that scientists recommend we sleep 8 to 9 hours every night. When you’re not sleeping long enough to reach REM, you’re missing out on your deep sleep patterns that are essential for de-stressing and other hormonal functions.

The brain is actually a toilet, in that, it flushes away toxins while you sleep. Yes, they physically build up over the day, clogging your brain up with gunk. Think of it as all the information and stimuli you have absorbed through the day: class lectures, the rude woman at the supermarket, your friend ranting about her fifth boyfriend this month….

No? Just me? Anyways….

Sleep is the time where your brain trashes the unimportant stuff and tries to keep the important stuff. The brain actively turns short-term memories into long-term memories. This is why those who experience a poor memory may also experience poor sleeping habits.

With the use of the cerebrospinal fluid, toxins called “beta-amyloid” protein are flushed away. This protein can accumulate and has been shown to be a leading cause in Alzheimer’s disease. Beta-amyloid can be flushed while awake, but not nearly as much as during sleep. A mice experiment done in 2013 demonstrated just how much faster beta-amyloid was expelled from the brain during sleep than wakefulness. Twice as fast!

Other health concerns of not enough sleep include (you guessed it) cancer, anxiety disorders, and even obesity.

But why?

A really great book that touches on sleep is chapter 3 of Stolen Focus by Johann Hari (2022).

“If you’re not sleeping well, your body interprets that as an emergency,” Roxanne Prichard explains in Hari’s book.

She goes on to explain how our bodies adapt to stressful situations, and much like how a hurricane might affect our body stress-wise, sleep deprivation has a similar effect. These physiological changes are simply to prepare the body for emergency situations. You might be watching a horror movie, but your brain doesn’t know any better.

The body (really, the hypothalamus, the brain-hub for survival hormones) raises your blood pressure and makes you crave sugary foods for quick energy boosts, which can be a leading cause for weight-gain.

In addition to this, that constant feeling of being on the edge of your seat, can be misinterpreted as ADHD and other anxiety disorders, which is only rising in numbers as people sleep less and less.

Getting your 8 hours of sleep, getting in your REM, is more than just feeling rested the next day. It can affect concentration, anxiety, and overall cognitive performance.

So why are we starving ourselves of sleep? Remember that late-night study sesh that seems to happen every night?

Less than 9% of adults get 8 hours of sleep every night.

Studies have shown that adults exhibit sleep deprivation through grogginess and mood swings (amongst other things). Dr. Sandra Kooij is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of Minneapolis. In Hari’s book, Dr. Kooij says that since we’re all sleep deprived, “we’re all in a hurry, we’re all impulsive, we’re easily irritated in traffic.” By contrast, children often express sleep deprivation through hyperactivity. On top of this, a hyperactive child makes for a more difficult bedtime, and the cycle continues—much like that pesky study sesh we’re very familiar with.

Even in 2004, when Dr. Kooij started working full time at the university, she realized the impact of sleep deprivation on her students, who were studying sleep themselves! Students were unable to focus and would fall asleep when the lights dimmed during lecture. When looking into the causes of sleep deprivation, Dr. Kooij found herself in a dilemma: these students know they’re sleep deprived, so why do they continue to avoid sleep?

To finally answer this question, we have been in this perpetual habit for years, generations. Grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, are tired too. My own grandfather shrugged me off when I asked, “You realize you’re only getting 5 hours of sleep every night?” He said in response, “[Being tired] is just a mindset.”

We are accustomed to feeling this way. I personally drink 4 cups of coffee every day, and even sneak in a few shots of espresso if I’m lucky.

So what can we do to get more sleep? It’s a challenging question. Sometimes the answers are just in front of us. When things seem bleak when looking ahead, researchers will often turn to the past to observe how things used to be. Before the invention of the lightbulb (thanks, Humphrey Davy), we all slept very regularly.

Take the bees for example—yes, I’m going off on bees now.

Bees can tell time. Did you know that? Not in the same way as you and I, but in the way of how our original clocks were designed. Biological clocks. Circadian rhythms.

A very digestible scientific novel published by Yale University Press, Rhythms of Life by Russell G. Foster and Leon Kreitzman (2004), includes a lovely chapter about bees and their circadian rhythms.

Inside the dark hive, bees communicate through buzzing and body-waggles. When the sun rises, the bees go out and find pollen and food. When the sun begins to descend on the horizon, the bees know it’s time for rest.

Humans used to experience similar routines. The sun would rise, we would go out to hunt and later work, and when the sun came down, we would go to sleep. There was no light, no electricity, just us and the vast and starry night sky.

Looking back on these simpler times is a reminder to slow down. Take a page out of the bee’s book.

Sleep is our time to rest and repair. Let’s use it.

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Your brain feels fuzzy, overwhelmed, and it’s only one week into the semester. You lull through your paper—the lines begin to blur. You reach for the energy drink and overshoot—it spills on the desk, but you hardly notice. The muddled and inexplicable words of your sleep deprived mind appear on the page. Maybe it’s time to put down the pen, close your laptop, and drink some water.

Maybe sleep is the best thing right now.

Headshot of Jenaya Shaw
Editor

Jenaya is a multi-genre writer and artist in her third year as a Creative Writing student. She spends her free time building a portfolio of tattoo designs and dreams of studying in Australia and Taiwan, publishing novels and tattooing.

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