It’s not hard to guess why 20% of American adults use alcohol to help them fall asleep—after all, the reasoning behind it seems sound. Consuming even a little bit of alcohol leads to drowsiness in most people, so, for believers in the nightcap, a little drink before bed serves as a way to drift easily into sleep without any tossing or turning. The problem is that sleeping is so much more than being unconscious.
During natural sleep, your brain is very much like the conductor of a symphony orchestra. It draws you in with a soft and quiet prelude, and then it progresses through the movements (or stages) of sleep in a beautiful cycle, culminating in a finale where we wake refreshed and energized for the new day. Throughout this symphony of sleep, your brain is performing lots of intricate maintenance, either on
Both as a neurobiologist and human, I love REM sleep.
REM sleep is a special stage of sleep. When we are asleep, our bodies and brains cycle through different kinds of sleep every couple hours. At the beginning, the cycles contain more deep sleep and slow wave sleep, both of which help reset the body and mind. Healing happens best in deep sleep, and both get the brain to calm down, clear itself, and make room for new memories and experiences the next day. These stages can be very refreshing, especially after a hard day’s work, but they’re not what I’d call fun.
In REM, the many different brain bits rehearse whatever they thought was the most salient part of the day, and nothing says all the bits have to agree. For example, when I enter REM, one part might focus on a moment I stumbled, another part might go over an experiment I need to plan, and yet another could be thinking about the t