mm176: Sleep: But after you read this, please!

MUDGE’S Musings

Not one, but two fascinating stories featuring the universal topic of sleep hit NYTimes today.

Some editor must have insomnia.

But this is really interesting stuff. First, a story about the processing that goes on while one sleeps.


An Active, Purposeful Machine That Comes Out at Night to Play


The task looks as simple as a “Sesame Street” exercise. Study pairs of Easter eggs on a computer screen and memorize how the computer has arranged them: the aqua egg over the rainbow one, the paisley over the coral one — and there are just six eggs in all.

Most people can study these pairs for about 20 minutes and ace a test on them, even a day later. But they’re much less accurate in choosing between two eggs that have not been directly compared: Aqua trumped rainbow but does that mean it trumps paisley? It’s hazy.

It’s hazy, that is, until you sleep on it.

In a study published in May, researchers at Harvard and McGill Universities reported that participants who slept after playing this game scored significantly higher on a retest than those who did not sleep. While asleep they apparently figured out what they didn’t while awake: the structure of the simple hierarchy that linked the pairs, paisley over aqua over rainbow, and so on.

Scientists have been curious about sleep for 100 years, fitfully. Lately, there has been renewed interest in what goes on while sleeping, and the discoveries reinforce what wise people have known instinctively for a long time: sleep is a curative.

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
~William Shakespeare, Macbeth*

The research covered in this story deals specifically with learning and memory.

Yet the new research underscores a vast transformation in the way scientists have come to understand the sleeping brain. Once seen as a blank screen, a metaphor for death, it has emerged as an active, purposeful machine, a secretive intelligence that comes out at night to play — and to work — during periods of dreaming and during the netherworld chasms known as deep sleep.

Again, the poets were there ahead of the scientists.

“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” ~Ovid **

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.  ~John Steinbeck *

The full story makes for interesting reading. Go to.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

An Active, Purposeful Machine That Comes Out at Night to Play – New York Times

I give up my time to sleep only grudgingly. I guess I feel as did James Thurber (sadly unremembered these days):

Early to rise and early to bed
Makes a man healthy and wealthy and dead.
~James Thurber, Fables for Our Times, 1940 *

The second story also concerns sleep — or the perceived lack of it, especially as felt by the elderly.


The Elderly Always Sleep Worse, and Other Myths of Aging


As every sleep researcher knows, the surest way to hear complaints about sleep is to ask the elderly.

“Older people complain more about their sleep; they just do,” said Dr. Michael Vitiello, a sleep researcher who is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington.

And for years, sleep scientists thought they knew what was going on: sleep starts to deteriorate in late middle age and steadily erodes from then on. It seemed so obvious that few thought to question the prevailing wisdom.

Now, though, new research is leading many to change their minds. To researchers’ great surprise, it turns out that sleep does not change much from age 60 on. And poor sleep, it turns out, is not because of aging itself, but mostly because of illnesses or the medications used to treat them.

“The more disorders older adults have, the worse they sleep,” said Sonia Ancoli-Israel, a professor of psychiatry and a sleep researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “If you look at older adults who are very healthy, they rarely have sleep problems.”

Insomnia is fertile ground for the quotable.

Insomnia is a gross feeder.  It will nourish itself on any kind of thinking, including thinking about not thinking.  ~Clifton Fadiman *

In my experience, the elderly people who complain about sleep do have a lot of other health issues to complain about.

Question is: are they having health issues because they’re having trouble sleeping?

Or are their health issues causing them to have trouble sleeping? This story believes the latter.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Aging – Sleep Problems – Health – New York Times

This quote, from another of our favorite science fiction writers, Brian Aldiss, wraps both of these stories together. Insomnia happens, and it might not be a totally bad thing.

It’s at night, when perhaps we should be dreaming, that the mind is most clear, that we are most able to hold all our life in the palm of our skull.  I don’t know if anyone has ever pointed out that great attraction of insomnia before, but it is so; the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instincts and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind.  I wish I believed, as J. B. Priestley did, that consciousness continues after disembodiment or death, not forever, but for a long while.  Three score years and ten is such a stingy ration of time, when there is so much time around.  Perhaps that’s why some of us are insomniacs; night is so precious that it would be pusillanimous to sleep all through it!  A “bad night” is not always a bad thing.  ~Brian W. Aldiss *

We’ll let that keen observer of the human condition, Bill Fields of Hollywood, have the final words on the subject.

The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep.
~W. C. Fields ***

It’s it for now. Thanks,


Quotation sources:

* The Quote Garden



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4 Responses to mm176: Sleep: But after you read this, please!

  1. […] out that yesterday’s NYTimes didn’t stop at the two sleep stories we picked up yesterday. The obvious topic: pharmaceutical aids to […]

  2. […] mudge placed an observative post today on mm176: Sleep: But after you read this, please!.Here’s a quick excerpt:A “bad night” is not always a bad thing. ~Brian W. Aldiss *. We’ll let that keen observer of the human condition, Bill Fields of Hollywood, have the final words on the subject. The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep. … […]

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