Your morning starts after a pleasant night’s sleep and an early morning alarm. Turning off the alarm you notice the after-effects of a violent storm – a storm that you slept through. Why is it that we can sleep through nearly anything but we are so sensitive to our alarm clock?
Studies done in Cambridge and Paris show that our brains are still active while we sleep, and that automated functions can still be performed while asleep. These studies consisted of word classification games where participants separated words spoken by the researchers into two groups. The test was performed both awake and asleep. While participants were awake, scientists tracked their responses using an EEG (electroencephalogram) and traced each category to a “specific movement in the brain.”
This continued as participants drifted into sleep. Once the participants were fully asleep, the researchers recited from a new list of words that could still be categorized in the same way. Tracking the responses with the EEG, they found the participants’ brains could still accurately classify the words while asleep, though response was slower.
The sound of our alarm clock is ingrained in our brain, so it is hardly any wonder that our brain has trained itself to recognize the sound while we sleep. This is the same sensitivity we have to hearing our name while asleep. Most people will wake if they so much as hear their name whispered. These sounds have become part of our automated functions. If you are truly asleep, a violent storm is unlikely to wake you up with sound alone, because your brain does not recognize it. When you are asleep, there is no automatic response for a sound you do not recognize. It does not register.
Researchers are now focusing their study on how we can use our time asleep. Is there a possibility that we can train our brains to perform specific actions while we are asleep? How healthy would that training be and would it be worth it? Until we understand the costs involved when interrupting sleep cycles and brain patterns, it is almost impossible to know for sure.