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I’ve got rhythm – to sleep (11/1/10)

November 1, 2010

Getting in the Rhythm

Wayne Rooney is one of the more internationally famous people most Americans never heard of.  England’s National Team striker is famous for many things beyond his magic foot, his recently wrangled secret five year contract with Man United, his giant house and supposed visits to a prostitute while his wife was pregnant. One fact is his inability to sleep well traveling to distant tournaments, with sad results for England in the World Cup.

Yet Rooney has an antidote – he lies on the aisles of private airplanes and lets the rhythms of the engines put him to sleep.

The Many Rhythms of Your Life

Night and day are built into the genes of terrestrial life in the form of 24 hour rhythms.  That’s why we’re better at remembering a friend’s phone in the evening than in the morning, why cholesterol is made at night, why industrial accidents are far more common at 4 AM than 4 PM.

In general, large parts of cell communication takes place rhythmically.  Many of these rhythms seem happen in  milliseconds.

Life is very fast.  There may be a billion protein-protein interactions per cell every second.  You have ten trillion cells.  Timing counts a lot, on both small and large scales.

People  perform better athletically when listening to music at 135-140 beats per minute, with Australian studies showing endurance improving for such musically tuned  triathletes. Many athletes and non-athletes fall sleep to very varied music, as my recent article “Music to Sleep” discussed.

Physiologists will tell you that humans possess many differently timed internal rhythms.  Some last 60 or 90 minutes, like the different phases of sleep.  Others last seconds or minutes, as does the life of many proteins.  Various rhythms occur over months (menstruation) the seasons (seasonal depression and birth numbers) or the year.

And then there are rhythms that help put people to sleep.

Rhythms to Sleep to

White noise is popular in many ways, but particularly as a way to fall asleep.  Whether it imitates falling water, raindrops, or air conditioning fans,  many find white noise generally soothing and, at the right biological times, sleep inducing.  Whether these white noise rhythms imitate or initieate internal body rhythms is not clear.  Yet many fall asleep to different rhythms, whether it’s train tracks, Zen chimes, or the many different meters of folk songs and lullabies.

One reason may be the difficult nature of inducing sleep.

A Rhythmic  Model for Inducing Sleep

Lots of us fall asleep to patterned activities as varied as reading Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, listening to Cold Play, or the regular drone of a Hepa filter.  Initiating sleep is itself rhythmic.

Sleep begins locally in the brain.  Parts of the hypothalamus biochemically shift, and then  start sending regional and general signals.  Large masses of the brain must be recruited for the process to continue.

Often the process fails.  That’s when you can watch sleep startle reactions – the broad jerks people get sitting in lectures or just trying to sleep in a bed.  Most of the population experiences sleep startles, often in insomniac America, a lot.

For making the whole brain reach sleep is a complex and  laborious process.  Getting motor areas, consciousness controlling cortex, and memory monitoring regions  to suddenly orient all their actions to sleep is something akin to conducting  9 symphony orchestras simultaneously.  Placed in different parts of a giant audience hall all the different orchestras have to start on the same note, play to the same meter, keeping the beat and varying the melody seamlessly to create one coherent sound.

It’s not easy to do.

That may be one reason rhythm is such a powerful inducer of sleep.  To get the different parts of the brain to respond and work simultaneously is truly complicated task.  Making it work requires a sleep ritual itself; you can start by brushing and flossing the teeth, turning down the bed, putting out the clothes for the next day.

For to fall asleep, you first need to rest.  And to do that you can add the music of Cold Play or Mozart; the funky white noise of your air conditioning system, whose lower temperature may bring you to quicker REM sleep; and the beauties and metrical intricacies of poetry and song.

There are many ways to fall asleep.  Many of them got rhythm.

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