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The Mind After Midnight: Where Do You Go When You Go to Sleep?

We spend a third of our lives asleep. Every organism on Earth—from rats to dolphins to fruit flies to microorganisms—relies on sleep for its survival, yet science is still wrestling with a fundamental question: Why does sleep exist? During Shakespeare and Cervantes’ time, sleep was likened to death, with body and mind falling into a deep stillness before resurrecting each new day. In reality, sleep is a flurry of action. Trillions of neurons light up. The endocrine system kicks into overdrive. The bloodstream is flooded with a potent cocktail of critically vital hormones. Such vibrant activity begs the question: Where do we go when we go to sleep? Based on new sleep research, there are tantalizing signposts. We delved into the one-eyed, half-brained sleep of some animals; eavesdropped on dreams to understand their cognitive significance; and investigated extreme and bizarre sleeping behaviors like “sleep sex” and “sleep violence.”

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Carl ZimmerScience Writer

Award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer explores the frontiers of biology in his writing. His work appears regularly in The New York Times and many magazines, and he is the author of twelve books, including A Planet of Viruses.

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Matthew WilsonNeuroscientist, Dream Researcher

Matthew Wilson is Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience and Picower Scholar at MIT. His lab is interested in teasing apart the mechanisms of sleep and arousal, and applications of neuroscience in engineering and the study of intelligence.

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Niels RattenborgNeurophysiologist, Sleep Scientist

Niels Rattenborg aims to gain insight into the function of sleep through studying birds, the only taxonomic group to independently evolve sleep patterns like those in mammals, including humans.

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Carlos H. SchenckSleep Clinician, Author

Recognized for his contributions to sleep research, Carlos H. Schenck has helped identify a wide range of extreme sleep behaviors known as parasomnias and therapies to treat them, as well as their potential forensic consequences.

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