At the Gates of Sleep

497736998_45c09a136e_oNow that my daughter is about to reach her first birthday, I’m in the mood to reflect on the year that just passed. Unfortunately, my recollections of it are a little fuzzy, probably because I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve enjoyed a good night’s sleep over the past year. Some people have babies who regularly sleep through the night and I am happy for them. Truly, I am. But clearly I was not meant to be in their ranks.

Still, the never-ending parade of nighttime awakenings has taught me something about my own brain. It is precisely tuned to hear my baby. Although I sleep blithely through my husband’s thunderous snoring and the loud buzz of his alarm clock – multiple times a day, thanks to the snooze button – I awaken at the faintest sound of my daughter’s sighs, coos, or grumbles. When she cries, I am immediately awake while my husband sleeps on beside me, undisturbed.

People are generally able to sleep through minor sounds and sensations thanks to a subcortical structure in the brain called the thalamus. This structure receives incoming signals from our senses and relays them to cortical areas devoted to processing sensory information like sounds or tactile sensations. When we’re awake, the thalamus faithfully relays nearly every sensory signal on to the cortex. But when we’re asleep, neurons in the thalamus participate in strong, synchronized waves of activity that squelch incoming signals. As a result, about 70% of these signals never make it to the cortex. This process, known as sensory-gating, is how we manage to sleep through the roar of rainstorms or the brush of the sheets against our skin each time we turn in bed. It is also how we sleep through our husband’s room-rattling snores.

Yet some sensory information does get through to the rest of the brain during sleep. These signals do get processed and can even wake us up if they are either intense (like a loud noise) or personally relevant. A clever study illustrated the importance of personal relevance by exposing sleeping subjects to a loud presentation (via tape recorder) of their own name spoken aloud. The scientists played the recording either normally or backwards and found that subjects awoke in less than half the time when they heard their names presented in the recognizable form.

So did my daughter, in effect, sleep train me by training my brain to recognize her sounds as personally relevant? It’s a plausible explanation, but one that is ultimately lacking. It cannot explain that first night when I slept beside my baby at the hospital nearly one year ago. Although I had labored through the entire night before and had not slept in the ensuing day, I awoke constantly to every little sound my mewing newborn made, not to mention the cries that told me she wanted to nurse. She’d had no time to train me; I had come pre-trained. Just as my breasts were primed to make milk for her, my brain was primed to wake for her. We seemed to be engineered for one other, mother and child, body and brain. And we spent that first long night discovering how clever a designer Nature can be, while my husband slept peacefully on the couch.

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Photo credit: planetchopstick

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