Sleep scientists have discovered a new phenomenon that may afflict millions of people worldwide. From initial studies, people who have insomnia and/or who snore are more likely to have it although they may not know it. Here are a few things that scientists know about it so far and the things that you can do, if you think that you may have it.
Labeled Without Full Understanding Yet
While scientists have yet to fully understand it, they have nonetheless labeled it as sleep misperception. In a study published in Sleep, a medical journal, researchers found that people with insomnia may snore in their sleep yet still feel like they haven’t slept a wink and may sleep without even knowing it.
Professor Daniel Kay, the study leader and a professor at the Brigham Young University, provided an explanation for the newly-discovered sleep phenomenon.
Scientists generally believe that sleep is a categorical experience – a black-and-white experience with no gray areas in between, if you will – such that an individual is either sleep or isn’t. Plus, the traditional thinking is that when you’re sleeping, you cannot be conscious although your most of your body functions remain.
But Professor Kay begs to differ based on his study findings. He asserts that a person can be asleep and his brain in a sleep pattern yet still be consciously aware. He further asks the million dollar question: “What is the role in consciousness awareness in the way we define sleep?”
Studied via Polysomnography
Professor Kay and his team then studied the sleep experiences and patterns of 32 insomniacs and 30 participants with normal sleeping patterns. The team used polysomnography, a common method used in studying sleep in humans, in examining the participants’ brain wave patterns.
When the participants were already asleep, based on their brain wave patterns, the researchers administered a radioactive tracer into their arms. The injected radioactive tracer was designed to pinpoint the exact location of activity in the brain. The researchers also asked the participants a series of questions about their sleeping experiences after they wake up.
The results can be summarized as follows:
- People with insomnia who reported an awake state, even when their brain wave pattern says otherwise, experienced increased activity in areas of the brain associated with conscious awareness during non-REM sleep. (During non-REM sleep, a person doesn’t experience dreams since it happens during the REM stage)
- People who reported themselves to be good sleepers also experienced increased brain activity in the areas associated with conscious awareness, surprisingly.
Professor Kay asserts that people with insomnia and normal sleeping patterns may undergo an inhibition process when falling asleep. This is normal since the brain sends inhibitory neurons to the body that results in progressively decreasing conscious awareness of the surroundings until a state of deep sleep has been achieved.
But the new study suggests a surprising aspect of sleep in people with insomnia. They may not feel like they are actually sleeping until such time that their brain experiences a higher level of inhibitory activity in areas associated with conscious awareness. This may also be the reason why normal sleepers reported sleeping even before their brain wave patterns on a polysomnography show otherwise.
The bottom line based on the initial research: People with insomnia may suffer from an impairment in the normal inhibition process in areas of the brain linked to conscious awareness. Said impairment may drive the new phenomenon scientists call sleep misperception.
This new insight into the way that the brain works in relation to conscious awareness during sleep may pave the way for new treatments in insomnia. Scientists are looking at ways that can decrease the effect of conscious awareness impairment among people with insomnia, such as mindfulness meditation.
In Eastern tradition, mindfulness meditation refers to the willingness and ability to be consciously aware of a specific object or subject, whether it’s a place, a person, or a thing. In your own life, you can apply its principles by meditating for 15 minutes before your bedtime so that your mind and body become more relaxed.
Meditation isn’t rocket science although it will take daily or near-daily practice to see the results. The steps can be summarized as follows:
- Assume a comfortable position on your Serta or similar bed. You may assume the lotus position or lie down on your back with your arms either placed by your side or on top of your stomach. You should be as relaxed as possible.
- Close your eyes and visualize a relaxing place, such as the beach or the mountain where you can enjoy solitude.
- Slowly breathe in and out. When breathing in, your abdomen should rise (i.e., diaphragmatic breathing), the way that babies breathe.
- Focus on your breathing until you feel that your mind has been emptied of its concerns and your body is as relaxed as possible.
After a few nights of practice, you may find that your symptoms of insomnia have been reduced and you sleep better. Your bouts with sleep misperception may yet go, too.