I hope to revisit sleep and dreams at a later point, but here is a brief crack at providing something interesting before I delve into exam season, and is the first piece I have written particularly for the purposes of this blog! Enjoy.
Almost every single organism we know of, from bacteria to blue whales has a some manner of circadian rhythm, and all of those with a brain have some manner of equivalent to sleeping.
While the simplest explanation for why we must sleep is that we become sleepy, sleep deprivation is eventually 100% fatal. A study into sleep deprivation in rodents was conducted, and within two weeks, every single subject died. When autopsies were conducted, nothing was found to be obviously wrong, except for the tell-tale signs of not breathing and zero blood pressure, commonly found in things that are not alive.
But beyond this perhaps ethically troubling experiment, a rare condition exists in humans by the name of fatal familial insomnia. It will come as no surprise to the more attentive reader that this too is invariably fatal, and is a condition caused by prion buildup in the brain leading to progressive deterioration of the ability to sleep. Death usually follows within 7 to 36 months of the onset of symptoms, which progresses from a state of partial insomnia leading to panic attacks and hallucinations, to total insomnia leading to dementia and death.
What is sleep? I think of myself as a consciousness generated by my own neuroanatomy, so when I am unconscious, to an extent you could argue that I no longer exist. You could use an analogy with the image produced on a computer screen as the conscious awareness produced y the unknown workings of a humming desktop computer. The screen will go into standby after a while, but the overall hum of the computer will not disappear entirely.
The analogy, while perhaps already a strain, ought not be taken much further. Computer screens will turn themselves off to prevent ‘burn in’, and while an interesting case could be made to apply this analogy to the mind, the reality is that scientists are still struggling to provide a definitive reason for why we need to sleep, or indeed point to the mechanisms through which insomnia causes immune suppression, depression, and even death.