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Experiment: Can people be trained to sleep with half of the brain at a time?

Image credit: Epilepsy foundation

Darko Savic
Darko Savic Oct 05, 2021
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Can people be trained to sleep with one side of the brain at a time? We could try.

Unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS) is a phenomenon where one half of the brain sleeps while the other half remains alert. Animals such as dolphins, seals, and some birds have this ability.

While sleeping in new environments people sometimes have a hard time sleeping. This is called the "first-night effect". This is not a true USWS but it can be called a USWS-like state or asymmetrical sleep. Can this be tamed into a skill and have it available on-demand? How would one go about exercising asymmetrical sleep?

Why do this?
  • To see what happens and gain a better insight of what different hemispheres do.
  • Come up with unexpected/good ideas with one hemisphere at a time. See this and this.
  • Some professions require people to remain vigilant during the night (soldiers, guards, doctors, etc). Asymmetrical sleep on demand would come in handy for them.

How the brain could be trained for asymmetrical sleep between the hemispheres

Some ideas that come to mind:
  • Sleep in new, unfamiliar environments every night for several months. Stealth camping comes to mind.
  • Would it be possible to somehow chemically mildly sedate one hemisphere or stimulate the other?
  • Reduce the temperature on one half of the brain via cold cap-like device - thereby locally slowing down the chemical processes.
  • LED light eye patch covering one eye. In regular intervals turn on light stimulation.
  • Headphone in one ear. In regular intervals disrupt the person's sleep with thought-provoking questions/ideas. Or just random sounds.
  • Kinetic stimulation on one cheek, arm, leg.
  • What else?
An asymmetrical sleep training device could be made that incporporates all of the above.

[1]Tamaki, Masako et al. “Night Watch in One Brain Hemisphere during Sleep Associated with the First-Night Effect in Humans.” Current biology : CB vol. 26,9 (2016): 1190-4. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.02.063

Creative contributions

Unfamiliar vs (slightly) dangerous environments

Povilas S
Povilas S Oct 05, 2021
I've read the abstract of the article about the first night effect that you referenced. They conclude that this phenomenon is a part of body's self-defense mechanism. Unfamiliar environments equals potential danger. However, at least on a conscious level, there's a clear difference between an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environment.

For me sleeping in unfamiliar (novel) environments brings even better sleep quality than sleeping in the same familiar place for a long time. The only condition is that I have to feel safe in whatever place I happen to sleep. If I sleep, for example, outside, camping alone, or in some questionable quality accommodation, then I might sleep with "one eye opened".

The latter perhaps depends on a person, because I've heard that some people have trouble sleeping just because the environment is unfamiliar, doesn't matter that it's generally safe (e.g. 5-star hotel). So from these real-life examples, it seems that this effect might stem from both conscious and unconscious anticipation of "danger".

This is important to have in mind when aiming to induce "one hemisphere sleep". A slightly dangerous environment would perhaps trigger a self-defense mechanism in most people and force them to stay half awake, but would this be equal to the "first night effect", or is this something different?

If "one hemisphere sleep" can only be achieved by subconscious anticipation of danger rather than the conscious one then only a certain part of the population can have it induced that way, namely those who have trouble sleeping in unfamiliar but otherwise safe environments.
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Testing the efficiency by measuring the memory capacity

jnikola Nov 28, 2021
Since sleep is comprised of the phases such as deep sleep, REM, etc., it is thought that these phases occur in a non-spontaneous manner. The newest theory (mentioned in this session) explains the sleep phases in the context of binary memory storage mediated by mechanosensitive proteins.
The initial deep sleep phase, when all the senses are shut down, is thus considered to be the time when system-level changes in the cytoskeleton and the adhesion complexes happen. The system establishes cell environment homeostasis, which stabilizes the newly formed memories and "secures" the data.
The following REM phase is considered to be the time when the brain processes this new data and integrates it with the existing. Many talin-switch alterations are thought to happen at this time.
With another heavy processing just happened, the brain again enters deep sleep to establish homeostasis and ensures the new data patterns are conserved. This cycling between phases is thought to enable the transfer of new memories and data from the hippocampus to the long-term storage in the cerebral cortex.

From this perspective, any alterations in the brain activity during sleep could heavily influence memory forming and processing. To test your hypothesis of people sleeping with only half of the brain, I would suggest measuring the memory capacity of the normal brain and the one that is half asleep. That could give you an answer to not if it is possible, but if it would be efficient or detrimental.
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Darko Savic
Darko Savic3 years ago
One hemisphere would be fully asleep while the other stays semi-vigilant. That way there should be no disruption in the phases
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jnikola3 years ago
Darko Savic Yes, but this way only several centers positioned on that awaken side could be used. At the same time, these centers would experience the detrimental effect of no sleep, while the others could possibly function normally. I will try to dig deeper into this, but I think it would be more clever to find the way how to activate 10% of the whole brain and not only one whole hemisphere. But as I said, I'll try to dig deeper :)
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