By: Alexander Golbin, M.D.
The discovery of REM Sleep, (a state in which our body becomes paradoxically active inside while looking paralyzed from the outside), demonstrated that we have many levels of vigilance. For example, Stage 1 is “drowsiness”, characterized by an alpha rhythm with slow eye movements, some “daydreaming” visualizations and thoughts that are superimposed on reality.
Stage 2 is a “Real” sleep, although not too deep, with strange spindle-like brain activity remarkably similar to the biorhythm from muscles. This is a time of multiple phenomena in sleep called “Parasomnias”.
Stage 3 is the deep sleep associated with the slowing of body functions and REM Stage, as mentioned above, it is the most active sleep, This stage is associated with a low amplitude EEG and fast-jerky eye movements.
The needs of Sleep Medicine led to the development of monitoring technology and simultaneous analysis of multiple body systems. This technology and methodology revealed some surprising conclusions: our body and brain are not always at the same level of vigilance. One part of the brain or body might sleep in one stage, while another might perform “waking” activity called “Transitional Confusional” states or parasomnias.
Unexpectedly, these conditions are of an important practical significance for daytime activity. Sleep Medicine focuses on working states as much as on sleep. It was discovered that there is also three systems of focused attention in the brain. Those systems are closely connected with the system of alertness and sleep.
Each state of vigilance can have both positive and negative aspects.
The first level of attention is when we are quiet, relaxed, with our eyes closed, but we are still awake. Our brain is also quiet, but it can only stay at this level for 4-6 minutes, then our brain waves start to shift into either sleep or to the active state of mind.
But, do not relax too much, or your brain and body will play dangerous tricks on you. For example, you are driving to or from work with no problems on the road. You are relaxed. You do not know how, but you miss your exit. You do not feel time lapse…you see that the car in front of you is moving from side to side and you do not realize that it is you swerving off the road. In the worse scenario, you get into a car accident, as do 7000 people who loose heir lives in a car accident each year. You were in Stage 1 sleep with dreams overlapping reality, part of you having been awake, but the most important part having fallen asleep for a second. According to a report from the National Transportation Service, that one-second is enough to run off the road.
When we are active, but performing routine activities, our brain and body are at the second level of focused attention, the most stable regime. That is why our grandmothers, and modern Psychotherapists, advise “dive into daily routine” in times of intense stress or grief; clean, reorganize, etc. The negative aspect of this level of vigilance is a stunting of creativity; you cannot move beyond your routine.
The third stage of vigilance is overfocused attention. You are consumed by a movie; you are an athlete who concentrates on the target. For example, when target shooting you’re hands are shaking, but suddenly stop and you are sure and steady enough to hit a center. At this time your brain shows a stable Theta Rhythm, which is almost identical to the end of Stage 2 sleep. The positive aspect is that this is a state of the highest level of performance.
The negative part comes if you are over-focused on the wrong activity. For example, have you seen teens dancing in a loud nightclub? Their eyes are not blinking; they are staring at one point. The person is in the “theta state”, disassociation from reality, highly intense. It is a “marathon high”, “second wind effect”, when a person is tireless on the top of performance. Again, it is the highest level of a long tem performance – an amazing mix of sleep and alertness.
So is over-focused attention somehow superimposed on some part of sleep? The answer is “yes”.
Above the levels of attention already discussed, there is another level of vigilance; the highest level of alertness with short-term super-performance is ecstasy, orgasmic emotions with cognitive revelation. At that moment, the person pays no attention to things or people around them, an almost trance-like state.
In addition, hypnosis, nirvana, natural and induced trances and dissociative states, as well as the multiple Para-alert states discussed in this article, all play a significant role in our personal and social lives. The good news is that slowly we are learning more about these states of vigilance; how to avoid troublesome states and how to produce the positive aspects; creativity, highest performance and stress resistant vigilance. Now we can study them precisely. Soon we will be able to say, “Tell me how you sleep? I’ll tell you who you are.”