Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Holy Shit, Sleep!

Sleeping Child

My other project has me missing out on a lot of sleep lately, which reminded me of something: sleep is weird as hell. Really, really weird. Have you ever just sat and thought about what sleep is, exactly? Your conscious mind just straight up stops working for eight hours (or less, if you're in the middle of writing a novel). We're used to it because it's been a fact of life for as long as we remember, but when you try to imagine it from an outside perspective, it gets downright terrifying. Dreaming makes it even more bizarre, but the incomparable Randall Munroe of xkcd already succinctly described that in his comic on the matter.

"But Mr. Blog," you might say, "surely sleep is just a mechanism that can help us preserve energy or get us to hide at night from predators or something." Yeah, maybe, but you're probably wrong. In fact, sleep only slows down metabolism by about 5-10% on average, and you could probably swing that just by watching infomercials all night. In fact, you can often preserve metabolic energy more efficiently by just sitting still than by sleeping, with the added benefit (in case of predators) that you wouldn't be unconscious and possibly snoring loudly.

But then there's the part where we would die without sleep. Don't be too afraid of that, though. You're body literally will not allow you to stay awake long enough to kill yourself. It forces itself to shut down momentarily in a process called microsleep, which occurs completely without warning when you suffer from extreme sleep deprivation. Your body takes over and forces you to sleep for about 1-30 seconds out of the blue. You'll still be miserable (and probably hallucinating), but you'll be alive. I'll let you work out the major disadvantages of the process for yourself.
Give up? It's a car accident.
Here's a hint, though.
One important caveat: Fatal Familial Insomnia, or as I call it, "Evolution gone terrifyingly wrong." This disease started some time in the 18th Century because of a bizarre mutation of a very specific protein. The mutation was passed on, because up until they reach the age of about 50, people who have FFI show no symptoms whatsoever. Then it kicks in, and sleep just stops. For no apparent reason, FFI sufferers stop sleeping entirely. They get exhausted. They start hallucinating. They eventually lose all capacity for reason and act like they're sleepwalking all the time. Finally, after about 18 months, they die. Every time.
What Causes Fatal Familial Insomnia
It's that protein, if you're interested.
There is no cure, and sedatives not only don't help, they sometimes make it worse. The only good news is that there are only about 40 families that carry the genes with this mutation, and only about 100 specific people. The bad news? Since it typically makes itself known after child-bearing years, it's probably not going to stop spreading. I don't know about you, but I physically shudder on behalf of future generations every time I think about that.

So to sum up: sleep is an almost completely unexplained phenomenon, and we don't know why the hell we do it, but without it, we die a prolonged, horrible death.

Holy shit.

No comments:

Post a Comment