It turns out that feeling isn’t just a matter of being spacey. It turns out that tiny little bits of our brains are constantly cycling in and out of sleep, and when those few cells are down, they miss things. What's more, when neurons are specifically paying attention, they spend less time in the sleepy part of the cycle.
I spoke with researcher Tatiana Engel, PhD, about this finding for a story I wrote, and she said, “Selective attention is similar to making small parts of your brain a little bit more awake.”
In my story, I described the work:
When we are in a deep slumber our brain’s activity ebbs and flows in big, obvious waves, like watching a tide of human bodies rise up and sit down around a sports stadium. It’s hard to miss.
Now it turns out those same cycles exist in wake as in sleep, but with only small sections rather than the entire stadium sitting and standing in unison. It’s as if tiny portions of the brain are independently falling asleep and waking back up all the time.
The researchers told me that it’s not clear why the brain would be carrying out miniature sleep cycles, especially since they also made the unsurprising finding that the cells were less able to respond when in the sleepier state. They said the answer could have to do with saving energy or clearing toxins from the cells.
Regardless of why our brains do this, what’s clear is that these newly discovered mini cycles relate to the brain's performance on a task. What I'd like to know is how to selectively alter those cycles, particularly in the parts of my brain that are focused on learning complicated neuroscience. Ongoing sleep cycles in miniature don't help when I've got one shot at talking to the researchers and a story due in days. Alas, I may need to wait on that.