Usually the first alarm will go off and I'll ignore it. It will blare for several minutes before some corner of my brain realizes that sound is from "out there" and it's not actually part of that weird cat in my dream. That part of my brain is sharp enough to engage my arm, which will they flail wildly, whacking at different stuff on my night stand.
Eventually I strike the alarm and all is quiet for 9 minutes.
Then it blares again. This time, other parts of my brain have started to come on line, and we can dispense with the dream illusion. That snooze button is more directly targeted now, and the alarm is quiet in seconds, rather than minutes.
At least for the next 9 minutes.
This time when it comes on, the pseudo-rational parts of my brain have started to come on line. I know have a chance to actually "wake up." They look at the facts and determine:
- It's comfortable in bed.
- I don't have to be up for another 15 minutes.
- If I don't check my email, I can sleep for 20 more minutes.
- It's comfortable in bed.
- The only responsible thing to do is hit the snooze button again.
Those lying bastards.
Around this time, my cell phone alarm will start going off. That emergency back up is just right for these circumstances.
Eventually, enough of my brain fires up that I can get out of bed, 30 minutes later than I wanted to, but still early enough to be on time.
So is this whole process my imagination?
Not quite, according to a recent study on sleep at Washington State University. I found out about this through a post on Loud Noises, Big Plans! It's a fascinating concept.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers say, there’s no control center in your brain that dictates when it’s time for you to drift off to dreamland. Instead, sleep creeps up on you as independent groups of brain cells become fatigued and switch into a sleep state even while you are still (mostly) awake. Eventually, a threshold number of groups switch and you doze off.
Lead author James Krueger said the view of sleep as an “emergent property” explains familiar experiences that the top-down model doesn’t, such as sleepwalking, in which a person is able to navigate around objects while being unconscious, and sleep inertia, the sluggishness we feel upon waking up in the morning.
If sleep were being directed by a control center, the whole brain would respond at the same time, said Krueger. Instead, it behaves like a self-directing orchestra in which most sections are more-or-less in sync, but a few race ahead or lag behind at any given time.
During sleepwalking, he said, the neuronal groups needed for balance are in a wake state while those needed for consciousness are in a sleep state. Conversely, in sleep inertia, enough neuronal groups are in a wake state for you to be awake in a general sense, but some groups are still in a sleep state—enough to hamper your ability to perform tasks.
“Everybody has sleep inertia every morning,” said Krueger. “It takes 30 minutes to an hour to recuperate from being asleep” and get all your neuronal groups up and running.
You can also find the actual paper here, but it looks like it costs $32.
It's a fascinating concept -- the idea that the body's sleep system is not controlled from one point, but rather is more loosely coordinated. Different groups or functions can enter a sleep state even if the whole thing does not.
It's analogous to how modern computers work. They can shut down peripherals, components, or even individual parts of the processor to save power, and yet still run.
Or a house that gives light. Sure, it starts giving out light when you turn on the lights in one room, but it doesn't offer the full spread and volume of light until the lights are on in every room. In the same way, a person is not fully functional until they have turned on all the aspects of the nervous system.
And it helps explain why I just can't get it through my head to wake up when that first alarm goes off. There's no one switch to flip. There's dozens.
And it's really comfy under my blankets.