Sleep Myth Debunked: Does Your Brain Shut Down When You Sleep?

What Happens to Your Brain When You Sleep?

January 3, 2019
Healthy Sleep

As the owner of a small business, this is perhaps my biggest sleep issue. My brain can’t seem to turn itself off. Long after your major muscles have drifted off to sleep, the brain is still hard at work trying to keep you happy and healthy. Since we sleep about one-third of our lives, it makes sleep a crucial activity to our health and well-being. Discover the mystery behind what happens to your brain when you sleep. 

Research has identified many reasons why sleep is so important to your health. When you sleep, your brain is anything but inactive. Neurons in the brain fire almost as much as they do when you are awake. Read on to find out what happens in your brain as you sleep.

Your Brain Powers Your Dreams

When you are awake, the thalamus, which is a small structure in your brain, relays messages to your cerebral cortex to allow it to sense changes in your environment. If you’re wondering, what happens to your brain when you sleep, the answer isn’t that it turns off. Your brain also goes to sleep in order to keep you from hearing water running, a toilet flushing, or a passing car while you are asleep. During REM sleep, the thalamus awakens to send images and sounds to your cortex to form your dreams. Some people have many dreams a night and others have few. Personally, I often remember most of my dreams quite vividly when I’m awake, while others can’t remember them at all. Both are quite normal experiences.

Your Brain Prevents You from Acting out Your Dreams

In your deepest stage of sleep, the part of your brain that is responsible for relaying your nerve impulses to your limbs through your spinal cord sends a message to turn off your motor neurons. This results in temporary paralysis. In this manner, your brain keeps you from running from demons in your sleep or recreating any actions in your dreams so you don’t harm yourself while asleep. If you were playing soccer in a dream and started kicking your partner at night, they may not be so happy with you the next day. For me this function has not always worked correctly. I can recall many nights I have woke up reliving Tae Kwon Do practice 😉

Your Brain Relaxes You

Another answer to what happens to your brain when you go to sleep is that it relaxes and calms you. It is a rare occurrence for a person to sleep walk or physically even move from the bed at night, even if they have very vivid dreams. That’s because the base of the brain, which sends out the signals to your muscles to relax temporarily, paralyzes the limbs to keep them from moving while you are asleep.

Your Brain Boosts Memory

In recent years I have focused on getting better quality sleep. For me it has helped with memory. The brain stores memories and also stores information of something new you have learned. Let’s say you learned to play the piano, at night when you are fast asleep the memories of a newly learned skill are moved to a more permanent part of your brain so they are easier to recall in the future. During REM sleep, the brain transfers the short-term memories of the day into the motor cortex to the temporal lobe so that they become long-term memories. It stores motor tasks such as playing tennis, learning a new dance more and driving so that these tasks become automatic. Your brain also forms new memories, consolidates older memories and links the more recent with the earlier memories. The consolidation of memories allows them to take up less room in the permanent part of your brain, leaving more room open to store newer memories. This makes a good nights sleep imperative whether you are trying to remember your to-do list or recall information for a test the next day.

Your Brain Makes Creative Connections

When you sleep, your brain is a powerful booster of your creativity. When you are in an unconscious resting state, your brain makes new and surprising connections that are not made in a waking state. This is what controls your waking up, getting your day started and having a connection between things that seem distantly related that fall in place. Your brain is responsible for when something just clicks, a light bulb goes off or you have that “a-ha” moment when something becomes very clear to you.

Your Brain Makes Decisions

You ever heard the saying, I think I need to sleep on it? Your brain processes information while you sleep in preparation for actions that you will take in your waking hours. It makes effective decisions while you are unconscious to take action on. The brain processes complex information while being completely asleep, but it does it unconsciously so you don’t realize it when you awaken. Many times people ponder a situation that is difficult for them before going to sleep. The next day they may actually have a great solution to their situation because their brain helped them to work it out in their sleep to make the best possible decisions.

Your Brain Keeps Chronology Straight

Throughout the day, your brain has many tasks that it has stored for later use. At night in the REM sleep stage, the deepest of the sleep stages, your brain replays the memories of what you did that day and helps to establish the order in which they happened. It then stores this information as a memory in your brain for later recall should you need that information. This is also the reason that you make suddenly remember a task in the morning that you forgot the previous day.

Your Brain Protects You from Illness

Some health conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s build up waste products in your brain during the day. When you sleep at night, your body produces increased amounts of cerebrospinal fluid, which is a clear liquid. This liquid moves through your brain and helps to flush out any toxins that could potentially contribute to harmful diseases that can affect your health. This makes sleep a much-needed item to ensure better health in the area of neurodegenerative diseases.

You can now see why it is so important to get enough hours of sleep each night. Your brain works hard all the time to keep you healthy and happy, even in your sleep. This is why have I personally make sleep a healthy priority in my life.