Sleep 08: Partial Sleep

Waking up for me is a process. I've learned to allot plenty of time for it.

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.
Now, if I'm lucky, that's all that happens. If the mischievous parts of my brain have started their boot up sequence, there's a chance they'll interfere and say, "It's okay. You're awake. Turn off the alarm. Just curl up in those blankets for 2 minutes -- that's all. Then you can get up."

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.

... More

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.


Anonymous said...

This is just like me, except it usually take only 15 minutes to wake up. May I recommend the ThinkGeek Flying Alarm Clock? I haven't tried it yet, but I'm sure it would do the trick. By the way, I found your site two days ago through Entrecard, and I must say that I have become a fan!


Anonymous said...

I don't use alarm clocks that often. My wife simply yells at me until I get out of bed.

There's no arguing with her about it, either. I tried that once and she responded by putting a big dog that was ready to play in bed with me.

Anonymous said...

This makes a lot of sense. And explains why the TV puts so many people to sleep - it requires so little brain power that all your cells are shutting down out of boredom!

Stanley! said...

Thanks for citing me!

I'm too cheap to shell out for the actual paper, but I love the idea because it explains so much (and your house analogy works well, too).

I have been told that I've had conversations with people, turned off the alarm clock, and even let the dog out without remembering, so I'm praying it was because I wasn't fully awake. You know, because it's either that or extra-early-onset alzheimers.

Anonymous said...

I love it! I too have a daily struggle with the snooze button. Some days it takes one application, others a lather-rinse-repeat motion until I stare at the clock long enough to realize what time it is and that I should've been up 10 minutes ago. This happened this morning actually. Fascinating news about the brain though. Thanks for clarifying why my brain makes me a lazy bastard first thing in the morning. :)

Paul Eilers said...

Man, ain't it the truth!

My bed and I become 'One' with each other every night. To have to get out early, on a cold winter morning, that just ain't right.

Anonymous said...

When I had to be to work at 0500, I used to set the alarm for 0330, then wack the alarm for 45 minutes or some other denominator of 9, get up, rush around and only be 15 minutes late for work. My husband always asked why I didn't just take that extra 45 minutes and get uninterrupted sleep, then just get up and go to work. Silly hubby!!!

Anonymous said...

There is one old Chinese Folk said:

"Wake Up before the Cock Crow, Or Else Money won't flow in"

So I make it as a motivation to wake up early...

Anonymous said...

"Those lying bastards" - hahaha!

I've always thought that the body has a direct control on when our mind decides it's time to sleep.

Like for example after a tiring day, your body would normally be asking the brain for a good shut eye so it could recuperate.

The points you stated here are really new to me. Very interesting facts.

Staci said...

I get around the snooze problem by putting my alarm clock on the other side of the room and setting it the loudest, most obnoxious music possible. It not only forces me to get out of bed, it forces my dogs as well because they think someone crazy has broken into the house. Once they're up, I have to take them out or it's a pee fest. Of course, I usually take my breakfast back to bed and linger there awhile, trying to fully wake up, before getting dressed so my method really isn't much better than repeatedly hitting snooze. I just like to pretend it is because at least I'm "up."