understanding & improving sleep

Did you know that sleep is one of the remaining  mysteries of our development as a species? Why do we sleep? What function does it serve? Why did sleep come about in the first place as an evolutionary function? I am a fan of sleep - not just transitioning into this state of being, but also, trying to explore and understand the mysteries of this daily activity which every single human being, mammal and most of the animal kingdom experience very day of their lives!


If you are wondering why, consider this - as a function (like breathing is a function, or circulation is a function), it doesn't seem to be outwardly helpful to our survival as a species! Why would evolution favour a state which makes us very vulnerable? Vulnerable to predators in our ancient past, and today, vulnerable to getting stuff done in our ever increasingly busy world!


Let's explore sleep and talk about how you can improve your sleep as a foundation to explore dreams.

What IS Sleep?

Sleep is defined as "a condition of body and mind which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes are closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended". It is a strange condition, it is truly mysterious and bizarre. One sleep researcher (Matt Walker at Berkeley in the USA) illustrates the bizarre phenomenon of sleep in the following way;


  1. Suppose you have a new baby
  2. Your doctor is telling you about the neonatal examination
  3. He says that you have a beautiful, healthy baby, but there are a few things you should be aware of as new parents
    1. Frequently your baby will go unconscious and become unresponsive to normal stimulation
    2. The frequency of these attacks will gradually reduce to one a day by the time she goes to school but they will last throughout life
    3. Periodically when unconscious she will be paralysed, except for spastic muscle twitches, her eyes will dart back and forth and her heart rate and breathing will get irregular
    4. As she gets older, she will have hallucinations during these episodes, she will hear voices and see things which are not there
    5. Some of these things will be very strange and maybe even terrifying, causing her to sit up in screams of fright
    6. But not a problem, because this condition is also accompanied by total amnesia, she won't remember any of these terrifying experience
  4. So, loss of consciousness, paralysis, spastic muscle contractions, cardiac and respiratory arrhythmia, hallucinations, terror, amnesia, oh my word, you are extremely anxious and upset
  5. But the doctor tells you, this is all completely normal, because THIS IS SLEEP!


sleep is actually very active!

The development of the EEG (electroencephalogram), captures the activity of the brain over wide areas. It helps us discover what is going on inside this amazing structure. What we find, is what is show above - the activity of the brain during sleep throughout the night. Here's what you can see in the chart above;


  1. We begin on the left with wakefulness, and move through five sleep stages during the night
    1. Awake
    2. Dreaming
    3. Shallow Sleep
    4. Medium Sleep
    5. Deep Sleep
  2. As we move through the night, we cycle approximately every 90 minutes from wake (or close to wake) through all sleep stages
  3. Dreaming sleep is categorised as having very similar brain activity to what we see we are awake. However, when dreaming, our bodies become paralysed, our blood-flow and breathing change, our eyes begin to move behind our eyelids (we call this REM or rapid eye movement).
  4. You can see that though we cycle roughly every 90 minutes through all sleep stages, our dreaming stage increases in duration as we move through the night. Our time spent dreaming gets longer, the other stages, shorter through the night.
  5. The sleep stage you are in when your alarm goes off (or due to some other disturbance) affects how you feel when you wake. The red and amber areas of the hypnogram show the worst  and least favourable times when to wake up - notice how much more favourable it is to wake when your sleep cycle approaches wakefulness.
  6. There are several technologies now designed to help you wake up (via an alarm) so that you are most likely to feel rested and refreshed.

sleep hygiene - getting a good night's sleep

Sleep hygiene describes habits and practices that help you sleep well on a regular basis. Sleep is not just important to us but in fact vital to our good physical and mental wellbeing. So, it is important to ensure we give ourselves every chance to have a restful night's sleep.


  1. Eating and drinking; avoid a large meal before bed. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants for several hours before bed and avoid alcohol.
  2. Your bed is for sleep and sex! Don't read, watch tv, eat, study or use electronic devices like iProducts in bed, they stimulate your brain and produce light which will affect the time it will take for you to transition to sleep.
  3. Keep your room dark, warm but not hot, ventilated but not noisy! Focussing on your sleeping environment will aid your sleep.
  4. Close all drawers, cupboards, wardrobes or open furniture in your room.
  5. Don't keep books by your bed, they remind you of what you haven't read yet and discourage sleep. Remember point number 2 above!
  6. Get into a routine. Go to bed at the same time every night, and try to do sleep/relaxation inducing activities before bed e.g. mindfulness, take a bath, read something soothing.
  7. Don't stay in bed for longer than 20 minutes if you are having difficulty sleeping. This is counterproductive so its best to get up and do something relaxing like reading or listening to soft/gentle music or practice meditation.
  8. Try to get as much natural light as possible during the day. Taking in natural light helps your body maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle, try to go outside during the day, take a walk or go out for lunch.
  9. Try not to nap (or keep naps short), and definitely not after 5pm. Napping will decrease your sleep drive and make it more difficult for you to establish a good sleep routine.
  10. Exercise - is brilliant for helping maintain good sleep. Your body restores itself when sleeping and exercise tires the body so that sleep can be induced more easily. Try to exercise early in the day though, preferably 3-4 hours before bed at least.

Irish and European sleep resources

Dublin's Mater Private Hospital specialises in treating a range of sleep disorders in adults and children. Click the logo to be taken to their website.

A voluntary patient support group for sufferers and families of Sleep Apnoea. The group list various resources dedicated to helping with this sleep disorder.

The Irish Sleep Society is a representative body for those clinicians and researchers involved in the area of sleep medicine.

The European Sleep Research Society, publishers of the Journal of Sleep Research and the key European body for the medical sleep field.

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