Here’s some evidence-based good news: Your next great getaway may be only hours away. What is perhaps your greatest and most important escape happens every night when you snuggle your head (and your brain) into your pillow and gently drift off to sleep.
Sleep provides a daily vacation for your hard-working brain, a time for cognitive rest and renewal. And during sleep, you dream. Dreams offer you an opportunity to escape the restrictions of normal reality and exercise the breadth and scope of your mental imagination.
Like any good escape, sleep helps you turn away from the concerns of daily living, but it does so much more. Sleep shuts out the demands of the outside world and turns your focus inward. Our mind severs its links to the outside world and helpfully paralyzes our body. During sleep, the brain is concerned only with itself. Sleep frees our mind from the tyrannical demands of environmental awareness and liberates our body from the driving imperative to move and take action.
Modern sleep research indicates that we sleep for two critical reasons:
First, brain health is impaired without sleep. Your brain and the rest of your body need a chance to rest and renew. Waking activities are exhausting and they devour a massive amount of our body’s energy reserves. Just as you need to rest after vigorous exercise, you also need your nightly sleep to give your brain a chance to repair damage, renew energy resources, and restore balance to systems that are knocked out of kilter.
Reason two: Learning is impaired without sleep, because it’s when your mind processes memories and learning. Your brain uses the peace and quiet of sleep to sort out what you have learned during the previous day, retaining impressions worth keeping and discarding trivial memories.
While all of this essential rest and renewal is going on, sleep also affords us the chance to escape into dreams, both normal and lucid. Of the two dream states, lucid dreaming is the most intriguing. These are the dreams in which the dreamer becomes aware that she or he is dreaming and is able to control the narrative of the dream. It is a safe, altered state in which two disparate states of consciousness (waking and sleep) are operating at the same time.
There are wonderful examples of creative insights that have come to both scientists and artists in their dreams. Paul McCartney said he heard the melody for “Yesterday” in a dream. Albert Einstein had an insight about the theory of relativity while dreaming about downhill skiing. The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in a dream.
Modern research into lucid dreams suggests that two different brain systems mediate waking and sleeping consciousness. The frontal lobes are in control during waking cognition and more primitive, subcortical areas dominate during sleep. Normally they take turns. But during lucid dreams, both systems operate at the same time, creating a hybrid form of consciousness.
So tonight, savor your nightly opportunity to indulge in the great escape of sleep. You will protect and revitalize your brain. And who knows? You may take control of a vivid dream and be transported into a fantastic world created by your own imagination.
Michael C. Patterson, founder and CEO of MINDRAMP Consulting, writes extensively on the art and science of brain health and mental flourishing. He is an educator and consultant who previously managed AARP’s Staying Sharp brain health program, and helped develop the field of creative aging.
Prepare for Great Sleep
Try to get eight solid hours of sleep every night. There are some indications that it is OK to break up this stretch into two four-hour blocks separated by a few hours of being awake. Researchers say this “Second Sleep” habit was common before electric lighting.
For a good night’s sleep:
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake at the same time each day.
- Manage your sleep environment. Your brain is incredibly sensitive to light. Sleep in a dark room or wear a sleep mask; minimize use of blue-light screens like TVs, computers, smartphones, and tablets before bed; use motion-detection night lights for middle-of the-night bathroom trips.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and other liquids later in the day. Don’t eat right before going to bed.
- Exercise during the day. Stroll in the evening.
- Try relaxation practices or meditating before turning in.
- Understand and leverage sleep cycles. Most normal sleepers go through four to five sleep cycles per night. Each roughly 90-minute cycle has five stages of sleep that reflect our depth of sleep. Don’t worry about waking up for a while in between sleep cycles.