The purpose of sleep | TED Talk by neuroscientist Russell Foster

Sleep is vital. Certainly performance is affected by fatigue but so is pain. Unfortunately, many people whom I see will describe disturbed sleep, perhaps due to their pain waking them through the night. The cycle of fatigue is a challenge to break.

During the night our blood pressure drops meaning that the perfusion of blood and hence oxgen through the nervous system reduces. The ensuing acidity is detected by the sensitised nerve endings and signals are sent to the brain via the spinal cord. The altered responsiveness of ON and OFF cells in the brain stem mean that this flow can be facilitated, in particular when we move to change position. This rouses us and we can feel pain.

Lying in bed at night, surrounded by darkness and silence, there can be little else to grab our attention except the pain. In these difficult moments, being proactive tends to deliver better results, for example actually rising and having a walk around the room to alter the blood pressure and change the context. Subsequently practicing mindfulness or gentle movements that are tolerable or pain free (using other body areas) can also help to change the state of the nervous system and hence the pain. Avoiding stimulating activities is also important, for example watching TV or looking at a handheld device.

Difficulties sleeping are the end result of a range of factors including feelings of stress, anxiety, pain, activity levels and the prior pattern of sleep. Within a comprehensive treatment and training programme for pain, creating the conditions for overall change in the state of the neuroimmune system alters the sleep pattern.

Specialist Pain Physio Clinics, London – for persisting pain and injury


Russell Foster is a circadian neuroscientist: He studies the sleep cycles of the brain. And he asks: What do we know about sleep? Not a lot, it turns out, for something we do with one-third of our lives. In this talk, Foster shares three popular theories about why we sleep, busts some myths about how much sleep we need at different ages — and hints at some bold new uses of sleep as a predictor of mental health.

Russell Foster studies sleep and its role in our lives, examining how our perception of light influences our sleep-wake rhythms.


5 thoughts on “The purpose of sleep | TED Talk by neuroscientist Russell Foster

  1. Wonderful discussion. I used to try to relax myself at night by telling myself to “clear my mind and think of nothing but sleep”. I used to be able to relax my body and mind by doing that in my 20’s & 30’s. I never had a TV in my bedroom until I married, by the request of my husband. I find that my brain can’t concentrate on sleeping because my brain wants to listen and understand the TV. I cannot block it out, of course. I have RSD, my husband is finally understanding that when I come to bed, the TV goes off so that I may fall to sleep without tossing and turning because my brain awake and I’m usually in pain if I don’t get at least 9 to 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Watching your video reminded me of a few ways to help myself get to sleep.

  2. Thank you for sharing this information again! For those of us suffering with RSD or CRPS — reinforces what we need — sleep that is restful & restorative!

    • Thanks for your comments. Sleep is vital! I work closely with patients on developing good sleep habits and without any other treatments or strategies, improving the quality has such a big impact upon both symptoms and resilience. One only has to look at the effects of sleep deprivation in terms of torture victims to see what happens mentally and physically.

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