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Aggregate levels of neurotransmitters might explain what you experience. I
recall reading somewhere that a day of sleep deprivation can temporarily
reverse some kinds of mental depression, and that this was taken as evidence
that sleep deprivation raised dopamine levels. That seems to make some sense,
if the brain works to compensate for the sleep deprivation by producing a
neurotransmitter that has stimulant properties. So if you do a literature
search, you might enter terms such as "sleep deprivation" along with
neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, or even serotonin.
What you may be experiencing is the stimulant effect of dopamine combined
with the soporific effect of adenosine. Adenosine tends to cause sleep, and
builds up in the brain during consciousness. Perhaps parts of your brain are
going to sleep under the effects of adenosine while other parts are kept wide
awake by dopamine. The adenosine might build up more in the areas that have
been metabolizing the most. If you stay up working, that might mean that
parts of your frontal cortex have the most adenosine and are falling asleep.
Yet those might also be the areas that govern what sorts of tasks and
repetitions you might be doing moment to moment. If the part that would
normally inhibit uncontrolled and useless repetition has gone to sleep, it
could leave other areas with less adenosine build-up free to get into a
repetitive cycle sustained by the stimulant effects of dopamine.
The cure might work because it puts other areas of the brain to work, thus
using up surplus dopamine and generating more adenosine in those areas.
Reading may be able to use more of the visual, language, and motor areas of
the brain than the frontal cortex. If so, it would allow neurons in those
areas to take up more dopamine and produce more adenosine, helping them to
catch up to the sleep state that may have arrived first in areas of the
frontal cortex. The other part of the cure, the warm drink containing
carbohydrates or tryptophan, might work by promoting serotonin production. I
vaguely recall learning that activity in at least some serotonin pathways has
a calming effect.
These are just speculations, but they could point to search terms in case you
want to research the phenomenon.
In a message dated 9/26/2001 3:12:49 AM Central Daylight Time,
> Subj: Getting to sleep
> Date: 9/26/2001 3:12:49 AM Central Daylight Time
> From: email@example.com (Bruce Edmonds)
> Sender: firstname.lastname@example.org
> Reply-to: email@example.com
> To: firstname.lastname@example.org (Memetics Discussion List)
> Last night I had the following experience. It happens to me about four
> times a year. From talking to others I gather it is quite common. It
> raises interesting questions about how memes inhabit brains (or brains
> deal with memes).
> I was tired but had to do some work, so when I went to bed I was
> "over-tired". The same thoughts kept going round my head repetitively
> and I could not get to sleep. The solution is to get up, have a warm
> drink and read for 15-30 minutes and then return to bed. One can then
> sleep. The repetitive thoughts can be worries but need not be (in this
> case they appeared to be simply a catchy tune).
> This raises several questions:
> 1. Why does this repetition happen when one is over-tired?
> Is there some active boredom mechanism that usually prevents such
> repetition when properly awake? It is notable that (when I remember
> them) my dreams are not usually repetitive like this. This suggests to
> me that boredom is an active ability that requires some 'energy' (either
> asleep or awake).
> 2. Why does this repetition apparently stop one going to sleep?
> This is more difficult and puzzling. What is it about this 'fugue'
> state of mind that prevents the transition to sleep? One would have
> thought that such endless repetition combined with palpable fatigue
> would be ideal sleep inducers, but experience tells me that this state
> will persist for many hours preventing sleep. Does the brain 'mistake'
> this repetition for a state of worry and hence bar sleep as a sort of
> protective mechanism - a sort of "did I remember to stoke the fire to
> keep the predators away" mechanism?
> 3. Why does the 'cure' work?
> Two parts of an answer: the warm drink temporarily heightens the blood
> sugar level so we have the energy to avoid the repetitive 'meme'; the
> book provides displacement thoughts that interest the brain. But why
> does not the content of the book echo around one's brain in the same
> A few connected observations and further questions:
> People will sometimes experience a similar phenomena with, for example,
> tunes when not tired (especially, it seems children). Does this mean
> that children are just less bored or have not yet learned to how be
> The tired 'fugue' state happens more often when I work late, rather than
> read late. What is the cognitive difference between working and
> reading? Reading a very boring book can send one rapidly to sleep.
> Bruce Edmonds,
> Centre for Policy Modelling,
> Manchester Metropolitan University, Aytoun Bldg.,
> Aytoun St., Manchester, M1 3GH. UK.
> Tel: +44 161 247 6479 Fax: +44 161 247 6802
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