8 Fascinating Things We Learned About Sleep In 2015

Scientists dove deeper into the mystery of sleep this year.
Turning off your devices and practicing mindfulness can help you get better sleep, research suggests.
Kevin Liu via Getty Images
Turning off your devices and practicing mindfulness can help you get better sleep, research suggests.

Arianna Huffington has shared the big idea that she thinks will define 2016 -- and it's probably not what you would expect.

"Sleep. That's right, sleep!" Huffington wrote in a Dec. 16 blog post. "How much and how well we sleep in the coming year -- and the years to follow -- will determine, in no small measure, our ability to address and solve the problems we're facing as individuals and as a society."

As more individuals wake up to the importance of sleep, scientists are continuing to learn more about the mechanics of sleep and the necessity of a good night's rest for physical and mental health, productivity, cognitive function, psychological well-being and longevity.

These major findings in the field of sleep research provide a fascinating glimpse into the role of sleep in our lives -- and represent an important step toward addressing sleep deprivation.

Here are eight of the most important things we learned about the science of sleep this year.

1. Smartphones are messing with our sleep.

One-third of Americans check their phones within five minutes of going to bed, according to a recent survey -- and that's bad news for their sleep.

If you're among the 71 percent of Americans who sleep with or next to their smartphones, know this: A study published in January in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that using light-emitting electronic devices before bedtime can cause it to take longer to fall asleep, suppress the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, delay the circadian clock and increase next-day drowsiness. Yikes!

2. Sleep is critical to emotional intelligence.

Skimping on sleep doesn't just make you feel crappy -- it also makes you more likely to be insensitive to the needs of others.

A University of California, Berkeley study published in July in the Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep loss significantly hindered participants' ability to accurately read the emotions of others -- a key component of emotional intelligence.

"This is especially concerning considering that almost two-thirds of people in developed nations fail to get sufficient sleep," study author Matthew Walker told The Huffington Post. "The real-life implications become clear when you consider professional and societal circumstances where sleep deprivation is common -- be it doctors and medical staff, military personnel or new parents. The accurate identification and recognition of emotional signals, as well as the need to be guided by them, is utterly critical."

“Almost two-thirds of people in developed nations fail to get sufficient sleep."”

On the bright side, the researchers found that dreaming actually boosts an individual's ability to accurately read facial expressions.

3. Mindfulness can help you fall (and stay) asleep.

Meditation is known to lower stress levels, lessen feelings of anxiety and depression, and trigger the body's "relaxation response," so perhaps it should come as no surprise that it can also help you get a good night's sleep.

University of Southern California psychologists found that a six-week course of mindfulness meditation improved sleep quality for older adults who had trouble falling and staying asleep and who felt sleepy during the day. After the six weeks concluded, the participants fell asleep faster, woke up less often during the night and experienced less daytime sleepiness.

4. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also help.

Sleeping pills aren't the only option for people experiencing insomnia. A large-scale review of studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in August suggested that talking to a therapist should be a first line of defense when it comes to treating insomnia.

Analyzing data from more than 1,162 study participant with sleep issues, the researchers found that cognitive behavioral therapy improved sleep efficiency by nearly 10 percent. Moreover, patients who underwent CBT fell asleep 19 minutes earlier and slept for an average of 7.6 minutes longer than those who did not.

"One major advantage is that [cognitive therapy] involves teaching skills to patients that they can then maintain lifelong and use whenever symptoms recur," researcher James Trauer of the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre wrote in the study.

5. The brain's circadian clock has a "reset" button.

For the first time, neuroscientists at Vanderbilt University found a potential way to control the brain's master "circadian clock," which is responsible for maintaining a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. By activating a certain group of genetically altered, light-sensitive neurons in the brain with a beam of light, the researchers were able to manipulate neurons in such a way that the body's internal circadian rhythms shifted.

The discovery of this "reset" button represents a promising first step towards more effective pharmaceutical treatments for seasonal affective disorder, jet lag and sleep issues associated with shift work.

6. Sleep helps us access our memories.

We've long known that when the mind is at rest, the brain is busy consolidating and storing memories. A new study from the University of Exeter in England showed that sleeping not only helps us to store our memories, but also enables us to better access them.

“"Sleep almost doubles our chances of remembering previously unrecalled material."”

The researchers found that after sleeping, we're more likely to recall facts that we couldn't remember while still awake.

"Sleep almost doubles our chances of remembering previously unrecalled material," study author Nicolas Dumay said in a statement. "The post-sleep boost in memory accessibility may indicate that some memories are sharpened overnight."

7. Early humans' sleep patterns probably weren't so different from ours.

When you imagine how our ancestors slept, you might think they got way more sleep before the days of smartphones and electricity.

But the idea that modern life is ruining sleep is nothing more than a myth, says UCLA sleep researcher Jerome Siegel. Siegel found that people living in traditional cultures (such as hunter-gatherers from Tanzania and Namibia who are not exposed to the trappings of modern society) sleep about 7 to 8.5 hours per night -- roughly the same amount that people in modern societies do.

However, one major difference between traditional and modern sleep patterns did emerge. For individuals living in traditional cultures, insomnia and sleep disruptions were almost nonexistent, whereas these afflictions were common for those living in modern cultures.

8. Good sleep can keep your memory strong and ward off Alzheimer's.

Scientists continue uncovering more and more evidence of the critical role of sleep in memory. A new study from the University of California, Berkeley showed that poor sleep can contribute to memory problems and the development of Alzheimer's disease. How? Sleep contributes to a toxic accumulation of beta-amyloid -- a protein known to trigger Alzheimer's -- in the brain.

"Over the past few years, the links between sleep, beta-amyloid, memory, and Alzheimer's disease have been growing stronger," Berkeley neuroscientist William Jagust, who is one of the study's authors, said in a statement. "Our study shows that this beta-amyloid deposition may lead to a vicious cycle in which sleep is further disturbed and memory impaired."

These and other findings suggest that prioritizing sleep may be one of the best things we can all do to keep our minds sharp and prevent Alzheimer's.

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