It seems there is a lot of puzzlement in the scientific community about the reasons for sleep. ¿Why do we have to sleep? It seems to be a question without an answer.
There are a few things that seem to happen faster when we are asleep, but none of them makes any sense with everything else we know about ourselves. In other words, we know what goes wrong when we miss sleep, but we don’t know why or how.
But maybe the real question, or in other words the one that would give us interesting perspectives, is actually ¿Why do we have to wake up?
In other words, the unaware body is totally capable of reacting to stimuli, and even doing so in complex ways. I, for one, am prone to doing a complicated dance in bed as the temperature changes throughout the night. I do all kinds of jumps and twists, my mother would never let baby-me sleep with her because of that. But not only that, take plants, for which there it probably doesn’t even make sense to talk of sleep, and they do react to dozens and dozens of ambient changes. (As a side note, it is still unclear whether all animals actually do sleep).
What’s for example the difference between walking and not falling from bed? Both require you to keep a definite pattern of movement. So much so that you do fall from bed when you’re a kid. I did, anyway.
The reason we ask the opposite question, ¿Why sleep? instead ¿Why being awake?, is that we assume being conscious is our basic natural state.
Consciousness is taken for granted. Of course i am conscious. Of course it is just natural that this is so.
But consciousness is actually a very complicated issue. It could be said to be one of the outstanding big unsolved problems of philosophy. And being philosophy, it is older that science, and nowadays seen as less important. That is why people get interested in the reason for sleep and not the other way around. But not that carries a lot of assumptions about consciousness, and might therefore be an useless line of research. Going the other way seems way more productive.
I have no answers to that, of course. It might be a good paper if i had. Instead, a blog post with my hunches.
A person asleep is still reactive. So what is the difference of the two kinds of reactivity?
The awareness kind of reactivity seems to have a “what if” kind of nature. It is somewhat speculative. Going around the kitchen and opening the fridge and not even noticing you’re drinking some soda before it happens is the kind of reactivity that is more alike the asleep state. There is a lot of difference between that and sleeping, of course, i’m trying to make a general picture. And now the waking state would be thinking something along the lines “what if pasta? what if beans?”.
For that kind of behaviour to happen in an organic sense, there would have to be a somehow modeling device somewhere in the nervous system. Some part of it that could model different kinds of future circumstances. The most obvious way to build such a device, given that you already have basic awareness, is to lie to oneself. In other words, keep the basic sleeping awareness device and grow a second neural path that connects in loop, and make that second part be like the “cry wolf neuron”. A neural path that fires just like the first one would if there was wolf (or pasta, or beans, or fire, or any other kind of signal the neurons can carry).
That would be the worm brain, which is not much more than a simple cord of neurons running around the body of the worm with a very thin fatter dot at some point.
Awareness, then, would be a fake reality. Awareness itself would be the possibility of deluding oneself (that being a concept that could certainly throw a monkey wrench at many psychologies). Just like the sign is the possibility of the lie (as Eco sez). And thus the waking kind of reactivity is very useful in some specific cases but basically useless once your belly is full, or in other words very useless from the point of view of your intestines. Thus, the waking state being something you switch on and off. Thus, mystery of sleep solved.
(And note the quite useful heuristic of: When an question is unanswerable, question whether it is necessary)