"Memory processing seems to be the only function of sleep that actually requires an organism to truly sleep--that is, to become unaware of its surroundings and stop processing incoming sensory signals. This unconscious cognition appears to demand the same brain resources used for processing incoming signals when awake. The brain, therefore, might have to shut off external inputs to get this job done. In contrast, although other functions such as immune system regulation might be more readily performed when an organism is inactive, there does not seem to be any reason why the organism would need to lose awareness. Thus, it may be these other functions that have been added to take advantage of the sleep that had already evolved for memory."
It's always just been a given for me.
But the new data is beginning to home in on what sleep accomplishes. And, in fact, your brain is doing a lot of work while you sleep. If I were to indulge in some CS-freshman handwaving, I'd say that the sleeping brain is doing garbage collection, lossy compression, and search indexing and optimization.
Is that surprising? I'd say that the really surprising thing is that we've gone through life up to now without really having any data on what sleep is for. So the new theory that sleep is primarily about memory management is more gratifying than surprising. It's about time we figured this out!
I guess the more we know, the more we realize we don't know.
It's not the size or the distance -- it's the complexity. I'm not saying that astrophysics is easy, but it's a lot less complex than the brain. Your brain is the most complicated thing in the universe... as far as we know.
A lot of things that count as understanding in stars are just normal to know about brains - for example mass, density, mechanical properties, energy throughput, age.
That "Human brains are the most complex thing in the universe"-meme strikes me as human chauvinism.
- The brain may be selectively rehearsing the more difficult aspects of a task [...] each subject was getting faster on those particular [details] at which he or she was worst
- Sleep was doing this work by using different parts of the brain than were used while learning the task
- Somehow the sleeping brain was solving this problem, without even knowing that there was a problem to solve.
Any insight into creative process, especially creative process that bypasses the habitual efforts of the conscious mind, is exciting to me.
Edit: these findings are also welcome in the light of a lot of people's efforts to get by on as little sleep as possible. There have been many posts and comments here, in fact, about taking that to an extreme (or wanting to). This research suggests that those efforts are mistaken if one's goal is to maximize productivity, and provide the beginnings of a model for understanding why.
If only this worked all the time. Perhaps I should read up on the Riemann Hypothesis and see what happens tonight.