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How do you fall asleep? It happens to us every night, but it’s still a deeply mysterious process.
A group of international researchers from the University of Cambridge is trying to discover what happens in that moment of drowsiness , as we go through the transition from being awake to asleep.
For that, they are measuring, analyzing and trying to understand how a conscious and awakened person becomes a sleeper dreamer .
They also want to know if that is one of the most creative moments of the day.
Although neuroscientists have conducted numerous investigations of brain activity during sleep, the Cambridge team explains that very little is known of the immediate moment before falling asleep .
“Some people fall asleep very quickly, others take a long time,” says Sridhar Rajan Jagannathan, a researcher in the Indian city of Chennai, who has the unconventional task of observing people when they fall asleep .
This “transition” usually lasts between five and 20 minutes , says Jagannathan, who is part of the Cambridge team, which is funded by a foundation created by Bill Gates.
“Mists of conscience”
The behavior can be very different. For some falling asleep is a smooth and uninterrupted descent. For others, however, it is a trip with turbulence .
“Some people begin to feel sleepy but then return to a state of alert,” he explains. They seem to “oscillate” between the urge to sleep and to be awake , in a more irregular and interrupted entrance to sleep.
Dr. Tristan Bekinschtein, head of the laboratory where the team of neuroscientists at Cambridge works, says that some people can consciously avoid the stage of falling asleep .
Describe that instance between being asleep and awake as “mists of consciousness.” It is at that moment when the eyes become glassy, the attention wanders and the thoughts begin to become diffuse.
Jagannathan’s research tries to show how this pre-sleep phase can be related to accidents or dangerous mistakes that are made.
This can happen during the day when someone is working. People may seem awake, but if they are starting to cross the threshold of sleep , significant risks may arise.
“If one is performing a boring task, one is not really going to fall into a deep sleep, but one can enter that period of drowsiness in which one knows that one is not alert , that one is adrift,” says Jagannathan.
“Those small drifts can cause big problems,” he adds.
It is not just about safety issues in tasks such as driving a vehicle, but any activity that requires concentration and involves making decisions.
In Cambridge laboratories, they study how response times change as people enter that sleep zone.
Jagannathan says they make efforts to find ways to warn of the onset of the dream, identifying changes in eye movement or brain activity.
They also want to understand why accidents that occur in that state of drowsiness are more prevalent among right-handed people .
They also trust that investigating brain activity in the period when people fall asleep and wake up can help people who suffered strokes to recover physical functions.
The mysterious moments on the dream frontier also have their positive side. They seem to have a connection with creativity and imagination .
” Inhibitions diminish when one is in that state of transition, which makes one more creative,” says Jagannathan.
“You have more freedom to express yourself and also you are more predisposed to make mistakes.”
This supports the idea that artists, musicians and writers are inspired by those moments.
The effect of the name
The research also sheds light on how we connect to the outside world while we fall asleep.
Jagannathan says that sounds and words may not cause effects, but it seems much more likely that someone will wake up when his name is said .
That gives researchers clues about how the brain works, not like a machine that detects sounds but it responds to meaning s as identifying a name other sounds, even sleeping.
“The meaning of something is very important,” says Jagannathan.
It is wrong to think that people who sleep are not aware of time, says Dr. Bekinschtein.
He sets an example for someone who needs to arrive early at an airport and wakes up a few minutes before his alarm goes off.
” The accuracy of the time is quite high, and people seem to be able to judge how much more time has passed than one can think.”
The great irony
Bekinschtein also confirms the great irony of the dream: the moment you can not fall asleep is when you really want it . Or the other way around
There were experiments where monetary incentives were offered to students to fall asleep as quickly as possible, but the pressure to fall asleep produced the opposite effect.
Jagannathan says that more attention should be paid to how we fall asleep.
“When someone complains about suffering from insomnia , people try to assess the quality of sleep, how long they slept, etc. But they never worry about the quality of the process of falling asleep, that is more important and related to these other problems” .