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by Carol Belanger, BA, RM, BHS
Our brain stem connects the spinal cord with the structures of the brain. The white matter of the brain stem relays sensations and information from the body to the brain. Scattered throughout the white matter are patches of gray that affect our physical functions. Part of the gray matter we are concerned with on the topic of sleep is called the reticular formation (rf). It governs both sleep and consciousness.
Consciousness normally depends on sensory information received from all over the body. This information is sorted, and sensed for essential, unusual and threatening information, and passed onto the brain. This information influences our levels of consciousness from attentiveness and alertness, to relaxation and inattentiveness. Signals from the rf to the brain stimulates our wakefulness. When the sensory stimulation of the rf is low, inhibited or slowed, sleep can occur.
There are many sensory stimulants: caffeine, exercise and activity, emotional stimulation from nervousness, anger, grief, worry or fear and even happiness, giddiness, etc., as well as computers, television, cell phones and more. They can significantly increase reticular formation activity, stimulate us and thereby impair sleep cycles or delay sleep, even if we are or should be tired.