Why we sleep remains unsolved.
Theories of Why We Sleep
From: Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School website.
Energy Conservation Theory
Although it may be less apparent to people living in societies in which food sources are plentiful, one of the strongest factors in natural selection is competition for and effective utilization of energy resources. The energy conservation theory suggests that the primary function of sleep is to reduce an individual’s energy demand and expenditure during part of the day or night, especially at times when it is least efficient to search for food.
Another explanation for why we sleep is based on the long-held belief that sleep in some way serves to “restore” what is lost in the body while we are awake. Sleep provides an opportunity for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself. In recent years, these ideas have gained support from empirical evidence collected in human and animal studies. The most striking of these is that animals deprived entirely of sleep lose all immune function and die in just a matter of weeks. This is further supported by findings that many of the major restorative functions in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep.
Other rejuvenating aspects of sleep are specific to the brain and cognitive function. For example, while we are awake, neurons in the brain produce adenosine, a by-product of the cells’ activities. The build-up of adenosine in the brain is thought to be one factor that leads to our perception of being tired. (Incidentally, this feeling is counteracted by the use of caffeine, which blocks the actions of adenosine in the brain and keeps us alert.) Scientists think that this build-up of adenosine during wakefulness may promote the “drive to sleep.” As long as we are awake, adenosine accumulates and remains high. During sleep, the body has a chance to clear adenosine from the system, and, as a result, we feel more alert when we wake.
Brain Plasticity Theory
One of the most recent and compelling explanations for why we sleep is based on findings that sleep is correlated to changes in the structure and organization of the brain. This phenomenon, known as brain plasticity, is not entirely understood, but its connection to sleep has several critical implications. It is becoming clear, for example, that sleep plays a critical role in brain development in infants and young children. Infants spend about 13 to 14 hours per day sleeping, and about half of that time is spent in REM sleep, the stage in which most dreams occur. A link between sleep and brain plasticity is becoming clear in adults as well. This is seen in the effect that sleep and sleep deprivation have on people’s ability to learn and perform a variety of tasks.
This theory and the role of sleep in learning are covered in greater detail in Sleep, Learning, and Memory.
Although these theories remain unproven, science has made tremendous strides in discovering what happens during sleep and what mechanisms in the body control the cycles of sleep and wakefulness that help define our lives. While this research does not directly answer the question, “Why do we sleep?” it does set the stage for putting that question in a new context and generating new knowledge about this essential part of life.