Although many theories have been proposed to explain sleep, we are only beginning to understand this extremely important phase of life. Some of the theories invoke "fatigue toxins"; "wakefulness toxins"; chemical ions, such as calcium, acting on the brain; muscular relaxation; instinct; and lack of sufficient blood flow to the brain.

The part of the brain called the hypothalamus may actually contain the "sleep center." Tumors in this area make people abnormally sleepy, and experimental lesions produced in animals have the same effect. Perhaps there is a "waking center" in the hypothalamus, and when this is inhibited, sleep ensues.

If a "fatigue toxin" were really the cause of fatigue, then we should eliminate this toxin while we slept, and always wake up refreshed and "rarin' to go." Actually, many people awaken very slowly, and don't reach their peak of efficiency until hours after getting up. Some, the real "nighttime people," don't achieve this state until midnight. Body temperature curves help to explain these differences. People who work best early in the day also attain their temperature peak around noon. Others don't reach it until nearly midnight.

We apparently drop off to sleep because of a subtle interaction between our muscles and our brain. Muscular tension stimulates the cortex of our brains, and, in turn, the cortex activates the muscles to activity. When we are tired and lie down, our muscle tone diminishes, and sends fewer messages to the brain. The decreased activity of the cortex lets the muscles relax still further. Finally, we sleep when the cross-stimulation between the brain and the muscles reaches the lowest possible level, like dwindling conversation between two people.

Physiologists have found that we fall asleep in parts. The first to respond are the large muscles which bend the back, legs. arms and neck. Next come smaller muscles. such as those which control the hands, toes, feet and fingers. The smallest muscles, such as the ones around the lips, brows and eyelids, take longest to relax.

Senses relax one at a time, too. First to go is the sense of smell. Vision gets sleepy before hearing, and the sense of touch is the last to give up.

It is now possible, by use of new laboratory devices, to induce a sleeplike state of consciousness by electrical stimulation of the brain. Although these sleep producing machines are as yet highly experimental, it may some day be possible to completely control sleep. Presently, it is possible to put dogs to sleep in a matter of minutes with this new technique.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

The amount of sleep necessary to maintain good health varies tremendously from person to person. Eight hours appears to be the average, but some individuals require more and others, less. Thomas Edison. for example, apparently managed on only five hours of sleep a night.

In a study conducted by Dr. J. Kamiya of the University of California School of Medicine, a college student slept for only 4 hours a day for a period of one year. He slept from 4 A.M. to 6 A.M. and again from 4 P.m. to 6 P.m. Although this schedule appeared sufficient for the student, Dr. Kamiya says that it cannot be generally recommended until the long range health effects are investigated. Sleep requirements are greatest at birth and decline progressively with the years. A newborn infant may sleep 20 to 22 hours a day, although some do well on as little as 15 hours. Between the ages of one and four, about half the day is spent in sleep. For children 4 to 12 years old, about 10 hours sleep are required. Adolescents usually need 8 to 10 hours, adults, 7 to 9 hours, and elderly people, 5 to 7 hours.

College students tend to sleep, on the average, a little less than 8 hours. However, it is important to remember that anyone who is easily fatigued or who engages in strenuous athletics, needs more sleep than the average.

The Soundness of Sleep

The pattern of sleep varies considerably from one individual to another. Some quickly reach a very deep sleep, which becomes more shallow as time passes. Others sleep lightly at first, and then assume a very sound sleep later in the night.

Several methods have been developed to test the intensity of sleep. The simplest one is to determine how loud a sound must be generated to awaken the sleeper. The deeper the sleep, the greater the noise required.

A graph of sleep intensity shows many fluctuations in the course of the night, becoming more and more shallow close to the time of awakening.

Results of Insufficient Sleep

No one has better described the balm of sleep than Shakespeare, and perhaps the most famous are the lines from Macbeth:

Methought I heard a voice cry, 'Sleep no more! Macbeth doth murder sleep!' The innocent sleep. Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care.

The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast.

Shakespeare was not alone in recognizing the tremendous need of the human mechanism for this daily period of rest from the strain and fatigue of everyday life. Insufficient sleep probably means incomplete repair and restoration of body cells. We work at less than maximum efficiency the following day, and may be nervous and irritable.

Long continued lack of sleep, like over-fatigue, may be responsible for dizziness, and sufficient mental sluggishness and poor neuromuscular control to cause serious accidents.

Fatigue from inadequate sleep is the most obvious explanation for the large number of automobile accidents which occur at night. Far too many people fall asleep while driving on long trips and may awaken only when the crash occurs. Unfortunately, some never awaken.

An Army experiment showed that it was possible to keep soldiers awake for as long as 98 hours, without drugs or stimulants of any kind. Nathaniel Kleitman extended this figure to a marathon 180 hours (7½ days), and a disk jockey named Peter Tripp stayed awake for 201 hours. This required stimulants, a team of watchers, and constant poking and prodding!


The sound sleeper is a very fortunate person, unfamiliar with all the problems which can interfere with sleep: rolling, tossing, sleepwalking, disturbing dreams which may even awaken the sleeper, and worst of all, insomnia. Fortunately, this is a problem which rarely disturbs college students. A survey made of college students showed that about 80 per cent fell asleep within a few minutes, and about 95 per cent in less than an hour.

The chief causes of sleeplessness or difficulty in falling asleep are anxiety, problems of insecurity and overstimulation.

Anxiety results from our inner emotions and attitudes, and may be very diffuse and generalized. Whatever its nature, it can profoundly affect our ability to relax and fall asleep. It is interesting that feelings of anxiety and insecurity from specific causes such as the dangers of a flood or bombings during a war may have little or no effect on sleep. For example a study was made during the years of World War II when the people of London were subjected to almost nightly bombings. This very definite physical insecurity, night after night, produced no significant continued ill effects on sleep for most people.

Dreams and Movement During Sleep

Kleitman and his research group have recently shown that dreams and their duration may be timed with electro-oculograms of the eye movements of the sleeper. They can also be studied with the electroencephalograph, because the brain waves change during dreams.

These and other studies indicate that we dream every night, even though we may awaken with absolutely no recollection of dreaming. Most dreaming periods last 10 to 30 minutes, and the end of the night is the busiest time for dreaming.

Also, there apparently is no such thing as motionless sleep. Most people turn as many as 20 to 60 times a night, shifting position so unconsciously that it doesn't disturb the restfulness of their sleep. A surprising amount of time in a perfectly restful sleep will be spent stirring and changing positions.


Somnambulists, or sleep-walkers, can engage in numerous activities while they are asleep. They dress them-selves, open doors and windows, climb stairs, walk to the refrigerator, and even stroll outdoors.

Dr. Jack Kaplan, writing in the American Medical Association magazine Today's Health, gives the following account of some of the activities of sleepwalkers:

In Enid, Oklahoma. a pretty blond housewife-asleep and completcly nude-climbed a tree . . . Another sleepwalker is reported to have written a novel in his sleep. And a civil engineer in Denver, Colorado. stabbed himself while sleeping.

In still another case, at mother flung her baby out the win-dow while dreaming that her home was afire. Also, u number of murders have been performed by sleep-walkers.

These daring and sometimes criminal acts are disturbing, until we understand the facts about sleepwalking.

The Following Information, Summarized from Kaplan's Article, is More Comforting:

  1. Ordinary sleepwalkers do not act with violence against themselves or others. Nor do they commit crimes. Psychiatrists say that crimes are not committed by simple sleepwalkers but rather by borderline psychotics. It is the opinion of many psychiatrists that sleepwalkers will do nothing to violate their moral code.
  2. Most cases of sleepwalking result from emotional disturbances that interfere with normal sleeping.
  3. Contrary to the popular notion that sleepwalkers never injure themselves, they frequently fall down stairs, trip over objects on the floor and sometimes sustain serious injuries.
  4. The normal sleepwalker does not attempt superhuman feats.
  5. There is no scientific basis for the notion that a sleepwalker should not be awakened suddenly out of fear that he may go into shock.
  6. Sleepwalking occurs in children than in adults.
  7. Since most sleepwalking is an expression of concealed anxieties, the sleepwalker should consult a physician.


Everybody jokes about snoring, but the various unpleasant noises which approximately 21 million snorers make can actually be seriously disturbing to their unhappy listeners.

An Unidentified Wit is Responsible for the Lines:

Approximately one out of eight Americans, women as often as men, make some type of unmusical sound nightly. It may take the form of a grunt, hiss, snort, gurgle, or an assortment of noises, and it sometimes assumes a surprising intensity.

To indicate the nuisance value of this problem: The United States Patent Office shows patents for more than 300 snorecurbing devices.

Snoring is caused by vibrations in the soft palate and other soft structures of the throat, when they come in contact with inflowing and outflowing air.

The position of the tongue, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, a blocked nose, a bent or twisted septum (the septum is the structure which divides the nose into halves), and nasal polyps or growths can all be responsible for snoring.

Other common causes are: allergic conditions or colds which cause swelling of the mucous linings of the nose and induce mouth breathing, too much smoking, fatigue, overwork, and general poor health.

Fortunately, many of these conditions can be corrected, either surgically or medically. For example, removal of enlarged tonsils and adenoids or of nasal polyps may give enormous relief.

The use of certain drugs antibiotics to reduce an infection, antihistaminics to shrink the nasal membranes, and steroid hormones often clear up extreme nasal congestion.

Most people snore only when lying on their backs, and an enforced change in position which prevents the tongue from falling back will prevent the snoring. An old remedy, dating from the eighteenth century, stopped the snorer from sleeping on his back by sewing a hair brush to the back of his nightshirt.

How to Ensure a Good Night's Rest

The best way to guarantee that you will fall asleep if this is a problem is to get in the habit of making some kind of ritual out of it.

Do the things which you believe make you fall asleep and sleep well: these vary tremendously from person to person and what works wonders for some may be absolutely useless for others.

Some of the time established recipes are: inhaling and exhaling deeply, warm baths, warm drinks, darkness and quiet, and monotonous sounds. Other techniques are: brushing the teeth in a specially vigorous way, laying out the next day's clothes, and undressing in a particular order.

The soundest general advice is to establish regular habits for sleeping, as with everything else. These enhance the quality of one's sleep as well as improve one's performance during waking hours.

Anything which serves to dissipate anxieties or feelings of insecurity even ritualistic activity is soothing, and aids sleep. Charles Darwin, a notoriously poor sleeper, carried a compass with him whenever he slept away from home. This enabled him to move the bed around so that his head always faced north.

It is said that Lewis Carroll, the brilliant mathematician who wrote Alice in Wonder land, was plagued by anxieties and experienced great difficulty in falling asleep.

To divert himself at night and clear his mind of worry, he created mathematical puzzles as he lay in bed. Pillow Problems was the book which resulted from these efforts, and other insomniacs also find them a good remedy for sleep.

Nathaniel Kleitman has probably lost more sleep studying sleep than any other man alive and has exploded many fallacies about the subject. According to Kleitman:

Dreaming doesn't impair sleep. We dream far more than we remember. No part of the sleep cycle beginning, middle or end is any better than any other part. For example, the hours before mid-night are worth no more in terms of rest than the hours after midnight.

Deep sleep is not necessarily more restful than shallow sleep. We shouldn't be surprised if we awaken slowly and listlessly. This is normal and natural for some people.

It is possible to manage for surprisingly long periods of time with much less sleep than we are accustomed to, without endangering ourselves in any way.

Submitted By

The author resides in Otowa, Canada.

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