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Functions of Sleep

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Functions of Sleep

We all know that getting enough good-quality sleep is vital for our body and mind - without it, we cannot function at our optimum level. But what are the more specific functions of sleep? What purpose does it play in our lives? And what happens when we do not get enough?

  • We will start by looking at the functions of sleep in terms of the stages.
  • Then we will learn specifically about the sleep function theories in psychology.
  • Finally, we will look at how sleep affects our mental and physical state with a focus on brain function and sleep, the cognitive function of sleep and the role of sleep in physical restoration.

Functions of Sleep, Person lying in bed in a deep sleep, StudySmarterPeople should aim to get a healthy amount of sleep to function at their optimum level, freepik.com.

Functions of Sleep Overview

Sleep plays a crucial part in our lives. With enough sleep, we optimise our:

  • Cognitive functioning

  • Development

  • Psychological state

  • Immune response

  • Energy conservation

Our quality of sleep directly corresponds to our quality of life. Most significantly, a healthy sleep schedule signifies a healthy brain, emotional stability, and time for the body to repair cells.

Sleep Function Theories

So why exactly do we sleep? Many psychologists have attempted to answer the question. Yet, it appears more complex than one answer, and several theories have been proposed to explain the function of sleep.

The main sleep function theories are:

  • Evolution Theory

  • Brain plasticity Theory

  • Energy Conservation Theory

  • Restoration Theory

This article will touch upon each theory whilst explaining different sleep functions and how sleep is crucial for both the brain and the body to operate.

Inactivity Theory/Evolutionary Theory

The Inactivity theory is one of the earliest sleep function theories. The theory itself indicates that the action of sleeping was an adaptation method to ensure the survival of all organisms by 'sheltering' them from vulnerability.

Whilst animals sleep, they remain quiet and still in one place, lowering their chances of being heard or seen by predators and thus sheltering them from dangerous scenarios. Essentially, this refers to sleep, a behavioural strategy that ensures survival, an essential aspect of Darwin's natural selection theory.

The Evolutionary Theory of Sleep, also known as the Adaptive theory of sleep, is based on the premise of the inactivity theory. It infers that species have adapted their sleep and periods of inactivity to a time when being 'awake' would be more threatening.

Looking at the sleep patterns of different animal species in comparison to one another lends validity to this theory. For instance, top predators such as lions can sleep up to 15 hours a day, while animals lower down the food chain, such as deers, get far less sleep.

The evolutionary theory is supported by Lesku et al. (2006), who found that animals who slept in environments that put them at higher predatory risk engaged in less REM sleep.1 REM is the stage of sleep known as rapid eye movement and is characterised by when an individual is in the deepest state of sleep.

Cognitive Function of Sleep

A regular good night's sleep is crucial for cognitive ability. If we do not get enough sleep as humans, cognitive functions such as memory, language, learning, and critical thinking may not be performed as well compared to when we have slept a healthy amount.

Functions of sleep, Three animated brains in a row first with low battery sign above and a sad face second with two battery bars and sad and the third happy with full battery levels, StudySmarterWhen people do not get enough sleep, they may have difficulties performing cognitive tasks, freepik.com

REM Sleep

Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) is a crucial stage in the sleep cycle. It is characterised by an increase in brain activity, rapid movements in the eyes, an increase in blood pressure and faster breathing. REM is also known to be the stage of sleep where the most dreaming occurs.

REM sleep plays a significant role in explaining the cognitive function of sleep. Research has found that REM sleep is important for memory and learning - during this stage of sleep, our brains store information that was absorbed whilst conscious.

Yet, according to certain psychologists, not all information is stored.

Crick and Mitchison's Reorganisational Theory of Sleep (1983) suggested that unwanted memories are discarded during REM sleep.2 Therefore, the efficiency of our brains is increased during sleep to aid the selective process of storing certain information in our memory.

However, getting enough REM sleep has been proven important for performing cognitive tasks such as learning and problem-solving.

Brain Plasticity Theory

A more recent theory proposes that sleep is a time where the structure and organisation of our brain adapts and moulds to store new information.

For example, the action of reviewing and selecting memories shows that the brain is actively adapting itself during sleep.

Consider this theory in relation to infants and younger children. Known as the most crucial time for human brain development, young children require far more sleep than adults. They need this sleep for their brains to process all the new information that they learn.

The Amygdala and Sleep

The amygdala is a structure located towards the base of the brain. It is known as the brain's emotion centre, as its main function is to help regulate emotions.

When somebody is deprived of sleep, a functional deficit occurs between the anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, which can cause a decreased mood and increased anxiety in the amygdala (Motomura et al., 2013).4

Along with other brain functions such as hormone rebalance, the amygdala can perform at an optimum level with enough sleep, and individuals are more likely to experience regulated moods and emotional responses.

Role of Sleep in Physical Restoration

Sleep is a crucial time for physical repair. The restoration of cells, tissues and muscles during sleep affects all functioning systems in the human body.

Immunity and Sleep

It has been proven that bodily processes during sleep help remove harmful matter or 'junk'.

  • Clearance of the brain is facilitated by the opening up of the lymphatic system at night. As the space between our brain cells expands, it leaves room for fluid to drain, removing some toxins in the brain.
  • A chronic lack of sleep increases an individual's risk of developing non-infectious diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
  • Sleep deprivation has also been linked to immunosuppression.

Oswald's Restoration Theory

Dr Ian Oswald proposed that sleep is necessary for lost energy to recover and restore ourselves. He suggested that sleep is crucial for the repair of cellular components.

Oswald also differentiated between the functions of REM sleep and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, also known as short-wave sleep (SWS):

  • He suggested that NREM sleep is for restoring bodily functions such as physical activity, whilst REM sleep is for restoring brain functions.
  • A study by Shapiro et al. (1981) provides supporting evidence and therefore increases the validity of Oswald's theory. The research found that long-distance runners had more NREM sleep after physical exertion, suggesting a link between the need for bodily restoration and NREM sleep.5
  • Zielinski and Krueger (2013) found that a lack of NREM sleep has been linked to a lower functioning immune system, suggesting that it is important in the process of bodily restoration.

How valid is the restoration theory?

  • Findings concerning the functioning of the body during sleep support Oswald's theory. It has been found that our body undergoes muscle repair, protein synthesis and the release of growth hormones during sleep.
  • Sleep has been found to aid recovery from physical injury. There is an increase in blood flow during deep sleep stages; this means more oxygen and amino acids are carried to muscles to support the repair process.
  • Yet, criticism of the theory stems from the question of whether the body undergoes restoration each night.

Overall, sleep has many functions that enable us to continue living at an optimum level each day. Having too little sleep slows down cognitive functioning such as memory and attention, weakens our immune systems, and increases our risk of depression and anxiety.

Functions of Sleep - Key Takeaways

  • Getting a regular good night's sleep enables optimum cognitive functioning, development, psychological wellbeing, immune response and energy conservation.
  • There are many answers to the function of sleep, which can be understood through different sleep function theories, including the Evolution Theory, Brain plasticity Theory, Energy conservation Theory, and Restoration Theory.
  • Sleep, particularly REM sleep, is important for cognitive functioning. It is when our brains process and store information and clear it out.
  • Mood regulation is another crucial function of sleep, as a decrease in sleep can lead to amygdala dysfunction and imbalanced hormones.
  • Oswald's restoration theory shows that sleep is necessary for lost energy to be recovered and cells to be restored.

References

  1. Lesku, J. A., Roth II, T. C., Amlaner, C. J., & Lima, S. L. (2006). A phylogenetic analysis of sleep: The integration of anatomy, physiology, and ecology. The American Naturalist.
  2. Crick, F., & Mitchison, G. (1983). The function of dream sleep. Nature.
  3. Motomura, Y., Kitamura, S... & Mishima, K. (2013). Sleep debt elicits negative emotional reaction through diminished amygdala-anterior cingulate functional connectivity. PLoS One.
  4. Shapiro, C. M., Bortz, R., Mitchell, D., Bartel, P., & Jooste, P. (1981). Slow-wave sleep: A recovery period after exercise. Science.
  5. Zielinski, M. R., & Krueger, J. M. (2013). Sleep and innate immunity. Front Biosci.

Frequently Asked Questions about Functions of Sleep

The main functions of sleep in psychology include energy conservation, physical restoration, cognitive processing, the clearance of brain toxins, and aiding development. 

The adaptive functions of sleep are alluded to in the adaptive theory of sleep, suggesting that periods of sleep or 'inactivity' have evolved into an energy conservation process. 

Whilst there are many important functions of sleep, scientists agree that sleep is crucial for restoring cells, enabling an individual to stay healthy and prevent illnesses. 

A lack of sleep slows down cognitive function as it stumps our ability to perform tasks which require critical thought and logical reasoning. It also prevents our brains from retaining information as good as if a person was well-rested. 

Research has found that REM sleep is important for memory and learning - during this stage of sleep, our brains store information learned while awake. Long-term memories are also consolidated during REM sleep. 

Final Functions of Sleep Quiz

Question

Which functions can be optimised with good sleep?

Show answer

Answer

Immunity

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Question

The Evolutionary Theory of Sleep is based on...

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Answer

The inactivity theory

Show question

Question

What does the evolutionary theory suggest?

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Answer

It suggests that species have adapted their sleep and periods of inactivity to a time when being 'awake' would be more threatening. 

Show question

Question

Predators at the top of the food chain tend to have...

Show answer

Answer

less sleep 

Show question

Question

Name three cognitive functions which diminish with lack of sleep.

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Answer

Three from the following: memory, language, learning, problem solving, critical thinking, logical reasoning. 

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Question

What characterises REM sleep? 

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Answer

Increase in brain activity, rapid movements in the eyes, increase in blood pressure and faster breathing. REM is also known to be the stage of sleep where the most dreaming occurs.

Show question

Question

Crick and Mitchison's Reorganisational Theory of Sleep (1983) suggested that...

Show answer

Answer

unwanted memories are discarded during REM sleep. 

Show question

Question

What cognitive function does REM sleep have?

Show answer

Answer

REM sleep helps with processing and selecting information and stimuli and storing it in long-term memory. 

Show question

Question

What did Zielinski and Krueger (2013) find?

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Answer

 A link between lack of NREM sleep and immunosuppression. 

Show question

Question

What does the brain plasticity theory suggest?

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Answer

It suggests that sleep is a time when the structure and organisation of our brain adapts and moulds to new information. 

Show question

Question

What is the main function of the amygdala?

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Answer

The amygdala is responsible for regulating emotions.

Show question

Question

What happens to the amygdala when someone is sleep-deprived?

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Answer

The amygdala cannot function properly, so the person may experience more negative emotions/moods.

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Question

More sleep helps to...

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Answer

increase immune defence 

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Question

What facilitates the clearing of toxins in the brain during sleep?

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Answer

The lymphatic nodes open up, providing more space between brain cells for fluid to clear toxins away.

Show question

Question

What is Oswald's restoration theory?

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Answer

He proposed that sleep is necessary for lost energy to be recovered, to restore ourselves and that sleep is crucial for repairing cellular components.

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Question

Oswald suggested that NREM sleep is for...

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Answer

Restoring bodily functions 

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