November 17, 2011
This past weekend I was awakened by raccoons on the roof. It’s not a happy sound, because I know what they are capable of doing with their little roof-chewing mouths. This made me wonder if there’s anything I can do to ease my sleeping mind, you know, make it a little less twitchy.
Lack of sleep not only can cause us to fumfer through conversation; according to a study released in November, it also can make us struggle to learn anything the next day. Working with brain scans of sleep-deprived flies—now there’s a phrase I’d never imagined writing—neuroscientist Chiara Cirelli found that if they didn’t get enough sleep, their brain synapses, or the connections between neurons, wouldn’t fully reset themselves to be ready to learn. Not sure how many things a fly learns in a typical day, but Cirelli based her conclusion on how the parts of its brain associated with learning were less lit up than in the brains of rested flies.
Other researchers say our brains can be so sensitive that even staring into the dim glow of an iPad at bedtime can throw sleep schedules out of whack. Light from most screens is at the blue end of the color spectrum, which makes it more likely to mess with our circadian rhythms. Russell Rosenberg, head of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine, goes so far as to suggest that if you really want to nod off quickly, you should put all your devices away at least an hour before bedtime. Good luck with that.
Raise that score!
Turns out there’s also a device that can help us sleep, or at least give us a good idea of what’s been happening in our heads all night. Last October the Massachusetts firm Zeo launched what it calls a “Sleep Mobile Manager,” a sleep monitoring, Bluetooth-powered headband that plugs into your smartphone. Using a mobile app available on iPhones and Android phones, it monitors your brain waves, eye movements and muscle tone as you snooze, and then in the morning gives your night’s sleep a rating, along with the amount of time you spent in REM sleep, deep sleep and light sleep.
The original idea, says Zeo CEO Ben Rubin,was to create a device that would wake you up during a sleep cycle when your brain’s ready to be aroused. It does that, but since it also gives you a snapshot of your sleep, people are able to see how their sleeping brain reacts to too much caffeine or a day of heavy exercise. And they’ve found that if they change a few habits, they can raise their sleep score.
Hey, I’m a competitive guy. Maybe keeping my sleep score high is all the motivation I need to sleep through the raccoon samba.
Here are some of the other ways to see what your sleeping body’s been up to:
- The pitter-patter of little beats: A California firm named Bam Labs has developed a mattress pad that tracks your heartbeat, breathing and movement as you sleep.
- You’re not too sexy for this shirt: There’s also now a nightshirt embedded with fabric electronics that monitors and processes your nighttime breathing patterns. They tend to be more irregular when you’re REM sleeping.
- Your phone never sleeps: And there are more basic sleep-tracking apps, such as Sleep Cycle for iPhones ($1) and Sleep Bot Tracker for Android (Free). Both work by setting an alarm and placing your smartphone under your pillow. The apps track your movement while you’re asleep and use that to figure out the phase of sleep you’re in. When you’re in a light phase and it’s time to wake up, the apps will gradually fade in an alarm.
Bonus video: While you’re sleeping, your brain waves are building mountains. Watch and be awed by what goes on while you’re just lying there.
Today’s question: Would you go to bed with a headband on if it meant you could see how you’re sleeping?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.