The Science of Sleep

By Kate Loyola
Last Updated: March 25, 2018

Our resting and waking hours owe a lot to our biology. From genetics to hormones, our psychological dispositions to our responses to our surroundings, there’s a lot that science can say about how and why we sleep. That information used to be confined to academic conferences, expert journals, and conversations between scientists. Now, with growing public consciousness of personal health issues—plus health and sleep technology entering the mainstream—most of us are paying more attention to the scientific underpinnings of our bedtime behaviors.

But diving into the specifics can be tough, especially for laypeople. There can be a lot of jargon and knotty concepts that need unpacking. Sometimes, the most reliable sources aren’t even written for a general audience, or they can be difficult to track down.

Here at Good Night’s Rest, we’re not scientists ourselves—but we’ve put in the time, resources, and patience needed to parse the scientific literature and explain things in a casual, accessible way. We don’t claim to have the expertise or the rigor of a scientific journal, but we can serve as your entry point to some of science’s most important and exciting sleep-related findings. In this series, we’ll go through important sleep-related concepts, investigate the workings of key biological processes, and see how all of this information can help us in our day-to-day lives.

 

Alarm clock perched on picnic table

Understanding Chronotypes

Chronotypes refer to the natural activity and wakefulness patterns of living beings, including humans. Yes, the concept does involve when people prefer to wake, so we don’t have to throw out the “early bird” or “night owl” labels just yet. However, chronotypes go beyond personal preference—or rather, they state that these preferences aren’t just products of laziness or initiative, but of deep-seated biology.

 

Person sitting with laptop amidst large clock face

Make the Most of Your Chronotype

We can’t change our chronotypes, but we can exert control over the external factors that affect our personal activity patterns. Whether you’re a morning lark, a night owl, or somewhere in between, there are concrete steps you can take so that your chronotype works with you and not against you. In this article, we give you some solid, science-backed tips for getting started.

 

Composite image of different moon phases

Understanding Circadian Rhythms

You can’t dig into sleep science without hearing the term “circadian rhythm.” It’s an essential idea to grasp if we want to understand our body’s daytime and nighttime behavior. Here, we’ll dive into how circadian rhythms work, and why they’re so important for sleep.

 

Purple contrast image of brain structure

Waves of Relaxation: Your Brain and Sleep

As we like to reiterate here at Good Night’s Rest, mental health and sleep go hand in hand. But the relationship between what our brains do and how we doze off goes much deeper than a night of relentless worries. Here, we’ll look at the different types of brain activity, and what each can tell us about how sleep works.

 

Woman lying under the covers with eyes open

Meet Melanopsin: Our Eyes’ Sleep Switch

Light is a major cue for our circadian cycles, but how does our body detect light in the first place? Research says our eyes hold an important answer: scientists have found special pigments that send chemical signals when exposed to light. One such pigment helps trigger our sleep/wake cycles, and it’s called melanopsin.

 

Woman carrying lamp in open field during sunset

Using Light for Better Sleep and Productivity

We’ve all heard about the perils of blue light, but it’s not the only type of light that can affect how we sleep. Here, we’ll look at the different wavelengths of light and how they can influence our wakefulness, our sleep cycles, and our daily productivity.

 

Gradient formed by sunlight on horizon

Using Color Temperature for Better Sleep

Artificial light keeps us awake and alert well into the evening, often disrupting our sleep cycles. But artificial light does have one thing going for it: because it’s artificial, we can tailor it to better suit our needs. Light fixtures, after all, vary in size, brightness, and other qualities. When it comes to sleeping better, you can pick the best lights using a concept called “color temperature.”

 

Person using smartphone in the dark with city lights in the background

Top 5 Tips for Using Gadgets at Night

Gadgets are some of the main culprits behind our sleepless nights, but it’s become almost impossible to swear off them entirely. Whether due to force of habit or the demands of our jobs, few of us can truly keep our evenings gadget-free. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to a lifetime of sleepless nights. Here are our top 5 tips for using gadgets at night without compromising your sleep.

 

Woman asleep on a balcony

What is Microsleep?

The sensations are familiar enough to many of us: our eyes grow heavy; our thoughts become a dull buzz; and the next thing we know, we’re lurching back into the waking world with a sharp jerk.

We call these episodes “microsleep”—but when we say “microsleep,” does that mean each quick lull is a micro-dose that we can stack to equal a full night’s rest? Let’s dive into the research to find out.

 

Patient undergoing EEG registration

What Are Sleep Spindles?

Sleep isn’t just a way for our brain to “power down.” After all, it’s when the biological processes that maintain our body kick in, from the release of growth hormones to the consolidation of memories we’ve made throughout the day. Sleep also means a period of activity for our body—and our mind. That’s why we get sleep spindles, brain waves that signal complex activity in our brains while we sleep.