How sleep makes us more creative, healthier and better human beings

Evelyn Storey & Bruno van Swinderen | 24 February 2021 | 26:58

Podcast Transcript: How sleep makes us more creative, healthier and better human beings

Maria Rampa: Hi, I’m Maria Rampa, and welcome to Engineering Reimagined – a podcast series from Aurecon – Australasia’s most innovative company, as named by the Australian Financial Review in 2020. In this series we will be exploring what makes innovative people tick, how they create innovation in their fields of work and life, and how that can be bottled for success. What can we learn from the likes of scientists, engineers, CEOs, academics, entrepreneurs and artists to help us reimagine and create a better world?

In this episode, Aurecon’s Managing Director for Queensland, Evelyn Storey, talks to Associate Professor Bruno van Swinderen from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland about the importance of sleep and how his research, using flies, is helping us to understand the role sleep plays in consciousness, creativity, performance and our overall health and wellbeing. Ultimately, we need sleep to not just survive, but to thrive. Beyond that, his research could help us better understand the role that artificial intelligence could play in the future.

It’s a fascinating topic and one which I am sure you will enjoy!

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Evelyn Storey: Bruno, I'm delighted to be chatting with you today on the subject of sleep and consciousness, something that's very interesting to me and I suspect to a lot of other people as well. But it's particularly special to me because I was part of the original engineering team that designed the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland where you're now based with your laboratory. So before we launch into this fascinating subject, I'm interested to know what inspired you to select science as a profession, and more specifically to research sleep and consciousness and attention at the Queensland Brain Institute.

Bruno van Swinderen: Morning Evelyn. I think a lot of our interests in science start with our parents. So from my side, my father was a biologist and agronomist, but more specifically, he was a keen birdwatcher, so he always viewed birds as conscious beings. And the way he would describe them and talk about them, got me interested in animal consciousness from an early age. But I think later on, I was working as a dish cleaner in a lab. And I always noticed down the hall was a lab that seemed to have a lot of fun. They always had cake days and beer hours and were laughing and there's young people. And one day I just went to that lab and said, Can I work for you? And they said, yes. And it turned out to be a guy called Jeff Hall. Now, you probably don't recognise the name, but he won a Nobel Prize a couple years ago. And he was instrumental in guiding me from then on to study consciousness, basically.

Evelyn Storey: Yes, those early role models are so important, and sponsors to encourage you in the direction that you go. So I was very surprised to learn in my research for this podcast that all animals sleep, obviously, including humans. And sleep patterns have evolved over time. So can you explain to us the evolution of sleep, how it is that we, and all animals sleep?

Bruno van Swinderen: It's true that all animals sleep, but they sleep in different ways. When you just look at humans, first of all, there's just two broad categories of sleep, there's REM sleep, rapid eye movement, sleep, and non-REM sleep, which is everything else. And non-REM sleep includes deep sleep.

So in deep sleep, that's typically when processes happen that help maintain cellular health, for example, making sure that cells are not stressed, that debris has been cleared away from the cells, that connections between neurons are maintained and optimised. And these are really old biological processes that probably existed already in sponges and worms and very simple animals, that have just been repackaged in what we call deep sleep, or slow wave sleep. And that's separate from REM sleep, which is dream sleep, which is probably not something that sponges and worms have.

But something that's a later invention that we believe is tied to the evolution of attention and a capacity to be able to pay attention to the world and not pay attention to some things, which is kind of what happens when you fall asleep, you stop paying attention to the outside world.

Evelyn Storey: Okay, interesting. So is there a balance between those two that we should be cycling through when we're sleeping?

Bruno van Swinderen: There's definitely a balance and just the way we sleep already shows that the brain wants to iterate to a balance. So when you fall asleep, you typically go rapidly into deep sleep within a couple minutes, you're sinking into deeper and deeper sleep. And then there's a high amplitude, slow wave or delta sleep. And then 90 minutes later, you're going to reverse the REM sleep cycle, your dream sleep cycle. And then you iterate back to a bit more deep sleep 90 minutes after that. And then 90 minutes later another REM sleep cycle. And you're basically balancing back and forth, almost like your brain is trying to figure this out. Until by the morning, you've done most of your deep sleep and you're mostly in REM or dreaming sleep. So that balance is absolutely crucial for a good night's sleep.

Evelyn Storey: Okay, interesting. And so that probably means in terms of REM sleep, being where we are when we wake up, why so many of us wake up having had of a feeling that we've just had a dream or trying to remember that dream, if that's the final part of a night's sleep?

Bruno van Swinderen: Exactly. Some people say they don't dream, it's not true. Everybody dreams, they just don't remember it. And typically, most of your kind of mundane dreams are by the morning, there are also dreams at the beginning of the night, we just don't remember them. And if you happen to wake people up at the beginning of the night, usually they'll report terrifying dreams. So dreams that have very high emotional content at the beginning of the night, whereas towards the morning, you're mostly dreaming of, you know, giving talks with no clothes and silly things.

Evelyn Storey: Yeah, I was gonna say those very embarrassing dreams that we all remember. And do they mean anything? That's probably the wrong thing to ask a researcher into sleep.

Bruno van Swinderen: And yeah. Most people, when they talk about dreams, they talk about the content of dreams. Whereas the way I think it should be studied is really about the reason for why there is REM sleep, or dream sleep. So what is the function of that? So obviously, the connection between the content of dreams and what happens to our lives, right, we dream of things that some extent that we experienced.

But that's a different question than the, function of dream sleep and why for me, that's an important point to make, is because we will never know what a fly dreams about, or what a rat dreams about, or what a monkey dreams about, I won't really know what you know, what you dream about, unless you describe it to me. So there's something about kind of the baggage of consciousness there. That in a way is preventing, you know, good research from being done. Whereas if you ask the question about what dream sleep is for, there, that's, completely addressable and, and an animal model.

Evelyn Storey: You've mentioned a few times, how you're using insects to help you with your research. And as engineers, we're very familiar with the use of models, virtual models or other models to test and iterate our designs. How did you come to the point where you're using insects to help you in your, models and in your research?

Bruno van Swinderen: That's an interesting question for sleep because originally, the idea with using flies Drosophila Melanogaster is the insect we use the workhorse of genetics, you know, the, the source of many Nobel prizes in medicine, as a way to discover fundamental biological mechanisms, and for example, circadian rhythms, genetics. The original idea, was that, because it was a fly, and had a tiny brain of about hundred thousand neurons, that sleep would be a simpler problem, to study in that it would be a unitary thing, just one phenomenon that flies fall asleep, they achieve sleep function, they wake up, and then we can study that. And we've since found that no, sleep is just as complicated in the smallest animal brains. So they also have deep sleep, they also have something akin to active sleep, we not gonna call it REM sleep, because they don't have rapid eye movement, they don't have eyes that move rapidly. They don't have eyelids. But they also have these kind of alternations between one kind of sleep and another kind of sleep. And so their sleep is just as complicated.

The value of the fly and doing work in Drosophila Melanogaster is that we have all these genetic tools to be able to, as you say, iterate to finding how something works, so we can turn off one set of neurons turn on another set of neurons, in real time, using light, for example, it's called optogenetics. And in that way, just find out how the sleep mechanism works.

Evelyn Storey: So the health advice for adult humans is that we should be sleeping seven or eight hours a night. And I'm embarrassed to say that I'm probably one of those people who doesn't manage that. We know that young people need slightly more maybe as we get older, we need less. What are the implications if we don't get enough sleep over an extended period of time.

Bruno van Swinderen: So long term, death. Even in flies, surprisingly. That's been shown for rats for mammals, and, sadly, for humans as well. But the net consequences, again, are completely tied to the different sleep functions. So there's, consequences for deprivation of REM sleep. And there's consequences for deprivation of deep sleep.

So for deep sleep, it's often, really basic health related problems, like for example, immunity, obesity, heart problems, basic biological functions that go awry with, lack of deep sleep. And typically, deep sleep is what the body wants first. So if you're sleep deprived, and then you try to catch up on the weekends, or, try to catch up the next day and have a sleep rebound. Typically, your brain will go first into intense deep sleep. So you'll see this high amplitude, delta sleep at the beginning of the night. And your brain has to first satisfy that basic, primordial, ancient sleep needs, to take care of the garbage that's accumulated in the brain to flush away that garbage to optimize synaptic strengths. And once it's done that, then it says, Okay, now I can try to take care of the other things that might relate a bit more to just being a human, which might relate more to REM sleep. And that's emotional regulation, for example, or paying attention properly. And we know that one of the main consequences of at least one night of sleep deprivation is poor attention.

Evelyn Storey: Interesting. So you've mentioned a few times the relationship between sleep and consciousness and attention. And you also research those areas. What is the link between sleep and in your research in these areas?

Bruno van Swinderen: Yeah, the link between sleep and consciousness is a tricky question in a way, because clearly, sleep is required for maintaining a healthy brain. And a brain is what supports consciousness. At least for humans, but we're thinking for most animals as well. And here, we've proposed a hypothesis in the lab specifically that sleep maintains a capacity for consciousness, especially REM sleep. So dream sleep. And what I mean by that is that what our brain really wants to do is to predict the world, right, that's what the brain is for, it wants to be able to predict what happens next. And make sure that you make good predictions about the world. But to do that too well makes you risk becoming a robot and becoming a habit driven animal.

So the way we drive a car and not notice that we've driven for 10 miles. That's in a way a reflection of the brain wanting us to become a habit driven animal, you know, prediction machine. And one idea is that the function of REM sleep, of when we dream and go into the stage of sleep, or the brains awake, like put into a virtual reality, in a way is that it maintains our capacity for detecting prediction errors, and surprise. And, it gives us kind of a capacity to respond to the world in a fresh way with surprise, which is what consciousness really is, when we're aware of something that's changed, there's something new that happened. So one idea is that REM sleep, so when we dream, really curates a capacity to respond to the world with surprise, thereby allowing you to be conscious, and this is a tantalizing hypothesis, if you took REM sleep away, completely, maybe you'd become unconscious, you'd become an automaton.

So this battle between deep sleep to just really, fix the brain, and, crystallize habits, and do everything with a minimal amount of energy is kind of counterbalanced with dream sleep, or REM sleep, which is the brain saying, hey, I don't want to be a robot, because it's not adaptive to be a robot, we've known through evolution, that if you respond with curiosity, creativity, and surprise, that you're actually a more adaptive creature, that you actually survive better.

Evelyn Storey: That's so interesting, because I think, from the engineering professional, it's so important to us is that balance of technical thinking and, and some element of routine, but also creativity and innovation. So I think you're telling us, we really do need to make sure we're getting a good night's sleep, in order to perform optimally.

Bruno van Swinderen: Exactly. And that's where there's been a lot of misinformation in, the media, and how we think about sleep, especially because there's this idea that the deep sleep is the good sleep, and the only kind of sleep we need. And indeed, when we take sleeping pills, that typically puts you straight into deep sleep stage. And what it tends to do is, prevent a normal amount of REM sleep, of dream sleep. So, you might be getting deep sleep functions, but you're not getting REM sleep functions. And it's a bit concerning that so many people take sleeping pills, and, and that there's not this awareness that you know, it's not one pill that's going to do the job.

We really need some kind of regime of pills in a way, if we were going to use pills to balance the kinds of sleep we need, in exactly the rhythm that the brain wants it to happen, right, that's 90 minute cycle. And the key here in a way is that the brain in general knows how much sleep it needs. Right? So you'll get the sleep that basically you need. So if somebody sleeps eight hours, they need eight hours, some people need six hours or five hours. That's all they need. And, typically, that works, you don't have to fix it. And that's often coupled to a lot of anxiety of people feeling like that they don't get enough sleep, and then taking medications and then somehow compounding those anxieties over time.

Evelyn Storey: So you mentioned sleeping pills just then. And the conscious numbing effect of those is the same thing happening with anaesthetic, when we have a medical procedure?

Bruno van Swinderen: There's some confusion about the link between anaesthesia and sleep. In general, in the past, it was thought that general anaesthesia was really a kind of only a sleep process. Typically, those drugs will first put you into deep sleep stage. Interestingly, they don't necessarily absolve you of sleep need. So typically, when people wake up from general anaesthesia, especially an extended procedure, they need to recover some sleep. It's not like it took care of their sleep. And that's because it has to do with the presynaptic mechanisms of affecting neurotransmission that basically prevents your brain from working normally. So it's not helping any sleep at all.

The other drug that most people are more likely to have in a general anaesthesia is alcohol. So when people consume alcohol, especially if they consume too much of it, that also will put them into a deep sleep stage, and you see increased Delta activity in their brain. But the net consequence of that is that you actually have less REM sleep after a night of drinking. So you typically go into deep sleep, and then a bit of light sleep afterwards, kind of like fragmented light sleep, and not that much dream or REM sleep. And that's interesting in a way because we know that REM sleep is important for emotional regulation. And anybody who's had too much to drink or who knows an alcoholic knows that. You can't say that their emotions are well regulated. And that's clearly a consequence of consuming too much alcohol. Poorly regulated emotions, irritability, and that's not necessarily only related to having a headache, but the fact that you may not have had enough REM sleep.

Evelyn Storey: Yeah, I know Aurecon as an organisation, we find a lot of benefit from partnering with educational institutions like UQ, and I think that partnership will get stronger in the future as we work through opportunities. Do you think sleep is more important for people working in highly complex professions such as STEM fields? So scientists, technologists, engineers, or is it just vital for everybody?

Bruno van Swinderen: I would lean towards your second answer, it's vital for everybody. And maybe that's an important point to make, that would prevent a lot of sleep anxiety, that people might feel that they need more sleep because of the kind of person they are. And, the truth of the matter is, that you get the sleep you need, the brain knows how much sleep it needs. So you may notice that when you travel, maybe and you see new sights, and you're looking at, you know, different cultures and meeting new people, sometimes you feel like you get more sleep, you're sleeping more, you're sleeping better, you're having more vivid dreams, that's often true. Because your brain has to process all this new information.

Maybe during COVID, people were noticing that their sleep was a little bit different as well. And there's been many reports of that; strange COVID related dreams and tied to anxiety, for example, or worry. So your day to day experience affects your sleep, to some extent. But in the long run, it doesn't matter what kind of job you have. you can be a very curious and motivated gardener. And you'll have, the sleep that qualifies for being a motivated, interested, surprised gardener. And you can be surprised, interested, motivated, attentive, engineer, and you'll get the kind of sleep that goes along with that.

The key thing is not to get bored with what you do. And I think that's an important aspect of sleep regulation, when you get habit driven, and you just do the same thing every day, life doesn't change much, then maybe you're getting less REM sleep, because you don't need it, you're just a habit driven creature. And one of the interesting things about sleep as well is that it changes with age. So babies have about half of their sleep is dream sleep. And then as you get older, you have much less REM sleep. And there's a clearly a connection between that and the observation that you become much more habit driven, as you get older, and that infants and babies and children are always learning. They're not making, they're not relying on habits, they're always learning.

So I think that's much more the important qualifier here is that, depending on whatever profession you're in whether you're living a habit driven life, or one that's kind of centered on creativity is going to affect the quality of sleep you have. And that can be really any kind of profession - artist, gardener, cleaner, it doesn't matter.

Evelyn Storey: So we can see how naturally induced sleep is important for our personal health and well being. And it's essential for our own personal sort of optimal performance. But how is sleep also important for society as a whole.

Bruno van Swinderen: I think it's enormously important. And you can start with just thinking of sleep as an individual thing. So clearly, if we don't sleep well, if we're sleep deprived, we're irritable. We don't pay attention well, we think less of our fellow human beings. And you can imagine that if this is a chronic thing in society, if many people in society, on average, are not getting enough sleep, not getting enough REM sleep, not getting enough deep sleep, getting badly balanced sleep because of medications, that's going to affect their interactions with other people.

Clearly, there's going to be a connection with how they behaved during the day, and the kind of sleep they had. But I think at a more philosophical level is that if one of the key aspects of sleep is to maintain a capacity for consciousness, in a way to behave as a human, right, to respond with humanity, to be a better human, clearly, then if most of society, is not getting enough sleep, that's going to affect decision-making, that's going to affect how healthy society is as a whole. So, I think there's an enormous connection between, the individual’s sleep, and the health of society.

Evelyn Storey: So you may have explained why teenagers get so ratty when they're on their devices all night. And the rise of social media and, not getting enough sleep because they're, busy playing on devices.

Bruno van Swinderen: It's a problem, their devices and how it affects their sleep and how then they have to wake up too early to go to school. And many countries, including the US are trying to make adjustments for that starting High School later. Just to make sure that they get enough sleep, especially teenagers. That's how we came up with the civilizations we have, by being these amazing creatures that were creative and aware and, surprised and hyper-conscious. And, the danger is that we're evolving towards, being more habit driven creatures, not responding to change, just seeing the things we expect to see, having predictions about the world that are just unchangeable. So the kind of problems we see in our politicians, I won't name any names, you know, I bet they're not getting much sleep at all.

Evelyn Storey: Interesting. Well, I'm definitely going to set my alarm for going to bed earlier tonight. The rise of the gig economy and people working multiple jobs and therefore working into the night or through the night, night shifts, is that impacting the quality of people’s sleep or can they shift their rhythms to suit and sleep during the day?

Bruno van Swinderen: It's malleable, you can shift your rhythms shift workers working during the night and sleeping during the day you can manage it submariners working, and sleeping on three hour shifts, so it's adaptable. And that's in a way, one of the amazing things with the brain is that it'll figure it out how to get the sleep it needs. But it's problematic in the sense that it's not that flexible.

So you have rhythms in the brain, called ultradian rhythms, where your brain shifts in and out of cycles every 90 minutes, even during the day, and you need to enter your first sleep phase at the best optimal time of that ultradian rhythm. And if you're shifting all the time, and changing around when you're doing one kind of work or another kind of work, or you've got a different kind of shift hours, this week, and that week, you're not giving your body or your brain the time to adapt those natural rhythms. Your brain has its own rhythms, and it takes time to adapt to something new. And we all know that from jet lag, it takes a week to recover from a trip to the States, right? Or to Europe. So we're just observing that then with, shift work, it's a kind of local jet lag, you're not flying across the world, you're just asking your brain to do something really unusual, which is to not respect it's kind of circadian rhythms.

Evelyn Storey: So what's next for your research? What's next for the laboratory at the QBI?

Bruno van Swinderen: I'm fascinated by the idea and the possibility now of studying consciousness by using flies. Why it's so interesting right now is because we're living in this era, which is really kind of a, like, a third biological revolution. The first one was our understanding that the Earth is not at the center of the universe. that we're not the middle of everything. That was like a bit kind of a numbing, and, shocking, and people got over it and moved on, right?

The second one was Darwin. That we share common descent with animals by DNA, and that people are still getting over that. And the third revolution that we're in right now, is that probably every animal brain, even the smallest fly, has a level of consciousness, has a kind of inner movie happening, a subjective experience happening in its brain that we're just not privy to, but it is its own private life. And that's actually quite a revolution in understanding and again, divorcing humans from being at the center of everything, that we are a part of a larger story here.

And why it's so interesting right now is that that understanding of how that happens in a small brain is clearly going to guide how we come up with machines in the future and machine learning, so we're seeing more and more prediction machines in our environment, devices that help us make decisions. And it's going to evolve that way. And we have to have a good understanding of how we're going to deal with that, how we're going to deal with what could be called conscious artefacts, how we're going to deal with outsourcing decision making to other entities and ourselves. And that's kind of the revolution we're in right now that we're understanding that consciousness is not necessarily a human thing, it could be artificial, as well.

Evelyn Storey: So you just mentioned digital, then. And obviously, we're all aware of the rapid pace of digital evolution and advances in technology. What else do you think you'll be able to research and investigate in the future, in your field as the pace of digital technology advances?

Bruno van Swinderen: I can see it right now. So everybody is onto machine learning, and artificial intelligence and deep learning as it's called to look at anything in our datasets. So we gather enormous datasets, thousands of neurons firing at once in the fly brain, we have that information, we have to understand how it works. We look at fly behaviour, we have to correlate those firing neurons with what a fly is doing behaviourally, what a human is doing behaviourally. And, that's all based upon deep learning, right? We've seen that through deep learning networks, and we use that QBI all the time now, to be able to make a connection and have a system, an artificial system, learn what those connections are, and what's actually happening. So that's, digital, I guess. But it's really just a pragmatic thing. It's because we have infinite information storage capacity, that we can do that.

What's kind of, in a way disappointing about it is that it doesn't necessarily get us closer to understanding how the brain works. So deep learning is a tool that makes connections and that categorizes things, but it can do it without in any way resembling a real brain's way of working or consciousness for that matter. So what will be more interesting is to have an understanding of actually how attention works in the brain, really, like how does it actually work in a fly's brain? And then have those brain- based mechanisms inform the digital tools, the information technology tools, and make them actually much more powerful than they actually currently are right now. And that's, I think, more likely the more the more interesting future not to use something pragmatic, which is that we can store zillions of images and make comparisons between them. But use something that's much more based upon how we are understanding the brain works, which is something completely different than just a big database.

Evelyn Storey: So thanks so much, Bruno. That was absolutely fascinating. I'm going to pay attention now at home and try and improve my sleep rhythms. But I think you've provided a lot of really interesting information for everyone. And it's been fascinating to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Bruno van Swinderen: It was a pleasure.

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Maria Rampa: I hope you enjoyed those insights into sleep and why we need it to thrive personally and professionally, as individuals and as a society.  If you’re enjoying Engineering Reimagined, tell your friends about it, leave a review and follow us or subscribe on Spotify or Apple podcasts. Until next time, thanks for listening.

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Show notes

It’s no secret that sleep – or the lack of it – can affect us personally and professionally, but just how big a role does it play in determining our ability to be creative, engage with others and contribute to our organisations and society as a whole? And what if a humble insect could help us unlock the mysteries of human sleep?

For this Engineering Reimagined episode, Aurecon’s Managing Director for Queensland, Evelyn Storey, talks to Associate Professor Bruno van Swinderen from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland about the importance of sleep and how his research, using flies, is helping us to understand the role sleep plays in consciousness, creativity, performance and our overall health and wellbeing.

Ultimately, we need sleep to not just survive, but to thrive. Beyond that, his research could help us better understand the role that artificial intelligence could play in the future.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Evelyn Storey and Bruno van Swinderen.
Evelyn Storey is Aurecon's Managing Director for Queensland.

Evelyn Storey

Managing Director, Queensland, Aurecon

Evelyn leads 700 people at Aurecon, and is responsible for the financial and operational performance of the business in Queensland. She is also a Board Member and Deputy Chair of the Board of Professional Engineers of Queensland and a member of the Structural College Board of Engineers Australia.

Bruno van Swinderen is an Associate Professor at University of Queensland's Queensland Brain Institute.

Bruno van Swinderen

Associate Professor, Queensland Brain Institute

Bruno’s current research on the mechanisms of perception in the brain – specifically three phenomena: selective attention, sleep, and general anesthesia – uses fruit flies as a genetic model system. A key focus is to elucidate how these visual attention processes interact with memory systems.

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