There is a deep sense of irony in the fact that as I am writing this post on the importance of getting enough sleep of sufficiently good quality it is past 1.30am and I am operating on four hours sleep and a gallon of coffee.
The fact that sleep is a necessity for us to function properly is not disputed any more. Our decision-making is affected by poor quality or insufficient sleep and our cognitive health and, by association, the function of society and productivity at work, all depend upon our brain’s ability to rest.
Yet there is no taking away from the fact that modern life is always-on, work has expanded to start earlier and finish later and the demands made by work projects, hobbies and life conspire to reduce the available hours of sleep we may have.
When artist Steve Aoki talked about sleep as part of Sleep Awareness Day, the point he made after he stressed the importance of sleep was just how little he managed to get because of the grueling pace of his work.
He’s really not alone. In tackling this problem we need to apply the same smart, knowledge-based approach we apply to most of our endeavors today. The brain may be like a muscle insomuch as it can be made ‘stronger’ with repetitive use but unlike a muscle it has no moving parts and replenishing its nutrients is a matter of a quick mental change of scenery.
“…neurotoxic chemicals, as they accumulate, interfere with the signaling between centers of the brain causing sensations of dissociation and a degradation of cognitive lucidity”
So, why does lack of sleep really affect us? A recent study indicated that during sleep the brain experiences an increase in volume that allows fresh channels to open up and interstitial fluid to course through them flushing neurotoxic chemicals that build up during our waking hours.
These neurotoxic chemicals, as they accumulate, interfere with the signaling between centers of the brain causing sensations of dissociation and a degradation of cognitive lucidity, which is why when we lack sleep we often feel our head is wooly or we feel a little spaced out.
By the same token, knowing one function of sleep, we can take measures to achieve similar results even when we are sleep deprived. Daydreaming, a state of consciousness during which the brain triggers a thought process not bound by a person’s immediate surroundings, produces similar restorative effects.
In my interviews of over 100 active and retired snipers and elite combatants for my book on cognitive development The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal With Uncertainty and Make Better Decisions the question of how they dealt with sleeplessness when they were on a mission came up more than a few times. They invariably said that they used breathing in a variation of a format called “the sniper’s meditation”.
When you first start out, the sniper’s meditation is performed prone, with arms overhead, palms flat, and face towards the ground.
Holding that position helps develop awareness of just how much (or little) shoulder breathing we do.
The breath itself is comprised of three different types:
clavicular – This is what most people do. We lift our shoulders to relieve the pressure they apply on our diaphragm and this allows us to suck in air through the back pressure.
intercostal – When we take particularly deep breaths we use this part of breathing which requires us to expand our rib cage to create back pressure.
diaphragmatic – A lot of us, when out of breath or stressed move our belly to allow the dome of our diaphragm to compress the stomach and guts which then allows air to be pulled in to the bottom part of our lungs.
The snipers meditation uses diaphragmatic breathing to consciously use just the bottom part of our lungs.
My interview subjects told me time and again that: “Instead of pressing your belly down into the ground feel the muscles of your exhalation press down into your pelvis. You’ll feel pressure into the earth, but it shouldn’t lift your back. Your ribs should widen, but you should prevent your sternum from rising and pushing your body upwards.”
The technique requires that with our arms stretched overhead we have to keep our shoulders from lifting away from our rib cage. With practice this becomes easier. The moment it becomes automatic it provides an instant mechanism for forcing the brain to reset itself.
This is no substitute for sleep, and all of my interview subjects stressed that they caught up on their sleep the moment the mission was over and they returned to base. But during periods of high stress, when alertness is required and sleep is not an option, the ability to take small mental breaks to daydream, in combination with the breathing technique of the sniper’s meditation prevented them from becoming cognitively impaired. This can work for us too.