Monday, July 14, 2008

Purpose of Sleep

According to a simple applications of the POSIWID principle, we can understand the purpose of sleep by observing its effects.

Alternatively, we can understand the purpose of sleep by observing the effects of sleep deprivation.

And yet hundreds of articles on sleep begin with some statement about the difficulty of understanding its purpose.

  • Philosophers, neuroscientists and researchers have struggled with this seemingly simple question for centuries. (Psych Central)
  • The real nature and purpose of sleep has long puzzled scientists. (Science Clarified)
  • The purpose of sleep is not entirely understood. (Dr Spock)

So where are the difficulties? For a start, there are some patterns of human sleep that don't fit the simple explanations.

Meanwhile sleep (or something akin to sleep) can be found in a wide range of organisms that don't have memories or emotions quite like ours.

Biologists would have us believe that the purpose of sleep is coded into some genes, shared between humans and other species. In evolutionary terms, the phenomenon of sleep appears to predate the kinds of effect we started with. Maybe humans are a bit ratty and accident prone after a disturbed night, but worms aren't. So we shouldn't infer the purpose of sleep from human effects alone; if there is a good explanation for sleep, it isn't necessarily a human-centric one. POSIWID may still give us important clues, but we need to interpret them carefully.

At least POSIWID gives scientists reasonable hypotheses to explore. Sometimes the only apparent alternative is a heuristic explanation, but Bateson and his followers (Watzlawick, Keeney) thought such explanations were like the empty explanation mocked by Moliere - explaining sleep by the presence of something called The Dormitive Principle. Bobby Matherne attributes a similar critique of empty explanation to Rudolf Steiner.

Further resources

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