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The Power and Mystery of Sleep

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All the work our body does during sleep is still a mystery. We are just beginning to understand some of the reasons sleep is so important to us. There are many ways that lack of sleep affects our functioning and our health.

1.  Obesity.  One study found that by age 27, those who sleep less than six hours a night are 7.5 times more likely to have an unhealthy Body Mass Index, and other studies support the connection between short sleep hours and being overweight.  The connection is related to the effect of sleep loss on the hormones that control appetite.                .

2.  The ability to make decisions, even simple ones, or recall obvious facts drops off severely.  For example, exhaustion appears to be related to numerous tragedies and accidents that occur in the military and in the private sector.  Investigations into the March 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City, a suburb of Houston, found many reasons for the explosion, including workers who were so sleep-deprived that their brains were unable to recognize the signs that they were nearing a major catastrophe. In 2010, many international oil companies agreed to install a fatigue management system at every major plant.

Making decisions is a difficult task. Unlike other parts of the brain, the prefrontal cortex gets no benefit form the time the body spends in a relaxed environment. Even when you are laying in a hammock, reading a good book or listening to music, the prefrontal cortex is making sure you don’t fall out or spill your drink. The time spent in deep sleep is when the prefrontal cortex recovers.

Without sleep, the brain loses its ability to realize the meaning of new information and becomes rigid in its logic. The prefrontal cortex also loses its ability to self-assess — to determine if an action is helping to solve a problem or simply making it worse.

3.  Our ability to learn new skills and solve problems may be related to the amount of time we spend dreaming each night.  When people go to sleep, their brains undergo a process that is crucial to learning, memory and creativity that scientists are just beginning to understand.

In the early 1960’s, Jack Nicklaus was winning championship after championship. In 1964 he entered the U.S. Open as the favored to win. Somehow he lost his sense of timing and he ended the game tied for twenty-third place.  A couple of weeks later he dreamed about playing golf. He woke up realizing he had been holding the club differently in his dream than when he had played the U.S. Open. He changed his grip and his winning stroke was back.

Stephanie Meyer reported that she woke up from a dream in which a girl was talking with a beautiful vampire in a meadow. The vampire was trying to restrain himself from killing her and drinking her blood.  Meyer wrote the conversation from the dream as accurately as she could remember and it became the basis for the Twilight series.

When we learn something new, the information flows through  the part of the brain called the hippocampus.  Storing all the information that we take in is not practical or useful. Our brains pick and choose what to keep and what to toss.

For example, in one study subjects who slept eight hours between attempts to solve a puzzle were more successful and faster in finding the solution than subjects who did not get to sleep between attempts. The researchers believed that sleeping allowed the brain to develop a cognitive flexibility that let them consider the situation in new ways.

4.  There is some evidence that while dreaming, people are down-regulating disruptive emotions that may be attached to experiences they have had. Disruption of the sleep cycle would interfere with managing emotions. Some research shows that people with major depression have disturbed sleep patterns and dreaming. Researchers are still working on cause and effect. Can disruption of sleep cause depression or is it always a symptom of depression? The answers still aren’t clear.

Individuals who are emotionally sensitive are likely to suffer from sleep disturbance. They may worry so much they have difficulty falling asleep, or they wake early, or they wake up on and off throughout the night. This disturbed sleep most likely adds to the problems they have with with making decisions, having flexible thinking, and seeing the consequences of actions they take. Not sleeping well would magnify difficulties with problem solving and apparently with regulating emotions.

Solving sleep problems is not easy, but may have effects on both your emotional and physical health. Having a sleep study completed may be the first step to take.



Cartwright, R. The Twenty-Four Hour Mind:  The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives. New York:  Oxford Univeristy Press, 2010.

Randall, David K. Dreamland:  Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep. New York: Norton, 2012.


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The Power and Mystery of Sleep

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). The Power and Mystery of Sleep. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 28 Aug 2012
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