We all know how difficult it is to pay attention at work — or to get anything done, for that are important — after a night of bad sleep.
It should come as little surprise, then, that sleep and attention are critically linked. Now, a new study from neuroscientists at the Queensland Brain Institute in Australia exposes why the ability to pay attention during the day relies on our capacity to do the opposite at night.
The researchers explain that sleep and attention are “like yin and yang” — resisting forces that work together to create harmony — and the two systems may have even co-evolved to regulate each other.
“The yin and yang in Chinese philosophy describe contrary forces that are in fact interdependent and give rise to each other, as with light and dark, ” Leonie Kirszenblat, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Queensland and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post. “Sleep and attention seem like opposite brain states, but they may actually arise from similar brain mechanisms that relate to dismissing the outside world.”
Sleep and attention may balance one another, because the ability to pay attention depends on get adequate sleep and the amount of sleep we need seems to be driven by learning and performing tasks that require attention.
Sleep and attention may be two sides of the same coin. Leonie Kirszenblat, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Queensland
The researchers analyzed a variety of sleep analyses conducted on animals, investigating the function of sleep in different types of species. The data revealed that in animals with simple nervous system, such as nematodes, sleep is used for growth or as a response to environmental stress.
It turned out that in animals with complex nervous systems — including insects, humans and other mammals — sleep isn’t merely used for growing or responding to stress. Instead, the data showed that sleep is an everyday activity that’s used to support cognitive functions, including selective attention.
The data also suggested that tasks necessitating more attention correlated with an increased need for sleep, and a great intensity of sleep.
Sleep and attention tend to be viewed as basically different countries, but they seem to involve a common mechanism for repressing external distractions.
“Sleep and attention is a possibility two sides of the same coin, ” Kirszenblat said. “Both allow animals to selectively process some information, while ignoring most other sensory stimulations. More broadly, we tend to position sleep and aftermath as basically different phenomena, but mechanistically they might be quite similar because both involve inhibiting the outside world.”
Dr. Bruno van Swinderen, a neuroscientist at the university, said in a statement that this is a “revolutionary” way of thinking about how the brain works during sleep and waking.
The study was published in December in the journal Trends in Neurosciences.
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