It’s that time of year again: the first days of school in which offspring that are used to sleeping ’til noon are forced to stumble to breakfast by 6:35am. The question is, are their brains better off setting the alarm for 6:00am and hitting snooze for a blissful half an hour, or setting the alarm for 6:34am and sledding to breakfast on a piece of greased cardboard? Is yours? The answer has to do with crickets.
You’ve heard of brain waves, and here’s how they happen. Think of the eighty-six billion neurons in your head like crickets. Each cricket can do only one thing: chirp. When one cricket chirps, not much happens–it’s not like the voice of one cricket can make you pour a cup of coffee or help you remember that snappy comeback. But your brain crickets don’t just chirp in isolation. They synchronize in ways that create the emergent waves of a summer night.
The thing is, crickets can come into synch in different rhythms. The neuronal crickets in your brain “chirp” more slowly when you are asleep than they do when you are awake. Just like a summer night, the brain waves created by your chirping neurons are like the background noise against which other things take place. When you’re awake, everything you do or think happens against the backdrop of the pattern called beta waves. Deep sleep happens against delta waves. If you listened closely, the beta waves would sound like high-pitched chirps and the delta waves would sound like crickets bowing a section of orchestral basses. Between these two patterns–the beta waves of alertness and the delta waves of deep sleep–are alpha waves of wakeful relaxation and theta waves of light sleep.
So there are many patterns of brain waves created by the synchronicity of your neuronal crickets, and each brain wave is associated with a level of sleep or consciousness. The purpose of an alarm is to mess with these crickets, forcing them to chirp in the pattern you want. Of course, you have a last line of defense against the dictatorship of your alarm clock: the snooze button! The desire to whack snooze competes only with the need to check Facebook while driving and with the overwhelming compulsion to scratch mosquito bites on your knuckles for the top spot on the human list of temptations. The question is, should you?
Here’s the reason you shouldn’t: maybe if you set the alarm five, ten, or fifteen minutes later, you wouldn’t need the alarm at all. If you kicked the snooze habit, you could sleep a little longer, and these few minutes might be all it takes for your brain to reach a natural state of wakefulness without being tossed into the ice-water bath that is the alarm clock. If you stick to a regular sleep schedule, your body knows exactly when it’s reached the final pass through what’s called N1 sleep, and you’ll wake up instead of taking another spin through the sleep cycle. If the fifteen minutes that you usually spend hitting the snooze button would let you get into this final N1, your brain and body would be better off using this time to sleep for real instead of snoozing in the half-light.
Then again, there’s something to be said for hanging out at this N1 transition between alpha and theta waves. Have you ever been floored by an idea? Has insight ever hit you like a falling piano? When did it happen? Was it in a warm shower or in the middle of the night? The reason is that a brain coasting on the cushion of theta waves is primed for insight–when you relax in the shower or slip into the boundary between alpha and theta waves in N1, you make your brain ready to receive messages from the beyond. There you are between sleep cycles in an N1 phase or staring out the window cross-eyed at a rainy day, and wham!–it’s insight (which looks like a burst of high-frequency gamma waves in your brain).
If you or yours needs energy, forget the snooze button and work toward a regular sleep cycle that lets you wake up naturally. But if you need insight, try smacking snooze and surfing the cusp between theta waves and alpha waves–the line that separates asleep from awake. You and the sleepy offspring may find your brains infusing the certainty of insight into what had been stubbornly murky before.
[This is adapted from my new book (yay!): Your Daily Brain]