Sleep spindles

I have often wondered why some people have no difficulty falling asleep on a plane or bus, maintaining their blissful slumber impervious to light, noise and movement, whereas others will be woken by the squeak of a mouse or a toilet flushing, and are highly sensitive to light and other disturbances. Unfortunately, I happen to be on the extreme end of the light sleeper spectrum and depend on being hermetically sealed with my eye mask and ear plugs, in a dark and quiet room, for any hope of falling and staying asleep.

This is highly inconvenient, especially living in a terraced house in the inner city, where noisy neighbours and frequent traffic are all part of the otherwise fantastic lifesyle. Without a doubt, if there was one thing I could change about myself it would be to become a heavy sleeper.

In a quest to overcome this trait, I’ve tried hypnotherapy, mindfulness meditation, listening to calm music, lavender drops, warm milk and reading until I’m exhausted. But the reality is, if it’s not dark and deathly quiet, I simply don’t fall asleep.

My annoying idiosyncrasy has also had unforeseen consequences. Like the time I went on holiday to Byron Bay and diligently packed my ear plugs and an unused eye mask which I’d squirreled away after a long haul flight. I awoke the first morning to find my face swollen with a pink allergic rash from the dye in the eye mask, which had mixed with my sweat during the hot humid night. I looked like a sick raccoon and spent the rest of the holiday on antihistamines and hiding behind oversized sunglasses. Not fun, or pretty.

But now I have the answer to the question I have pondered all my life. Scientists at the Harvard Medical School, led by neurologist Dr Jeffrey Ellenbogen, have discovered why some people’s brains are better than others at blocking out environmental stimuli during sleep. Ellenbogen and his team recorded the brainwaves of people who reported being heavy sleepers as they were subjected to different noises at increasing volumes. Ellenbogen paid particular attention to the patterns produced by the thalamus, the area of the brain that modulates incoming auditory and visual stimuli. He found that the number of pulses, or sleep spindles, produced by the thalamus varied among the sleepers. Those with the highest number of spindles were the heaviest sleepers and slept through more noises than those with fewer spindles.

Scientists are not sure why some people generate more sleep spindles than others, but they suspect it may be genetic. Dr Ellenbogen hopes that future research will lead to drugs or other therapies that can increase the number of sleep spindles so that light sleepers become better at blocking out external stimuli. I really hope they achieve their mission. Until then, my eye mask, ear plugs and the occasional sleeping pill will continue to be my lifesavers.

What’s your word?

I love learning new words, especially ones from other languages that have no equivalent in English. For all the brilliant specificity of the English language, there is still so much it fails to capture and convey. Here are a few of my current favourites:

Schnorrer: a Yiddish word for someone who’s a sponger or freeloader. Sometimes it’s used as a backhanded compliment for a person whose chutzpah and cleverness enables them to obtain things for free.

Kummerspeck: this German word literally means ‘grief bacon’ and refers to the weight gained from emotional over-eating, say from indulging in too much choc chip ice-cream after a bad break-up.

Torschlusspanik: another German gem which refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older, literally ‘gate-closing panic’. Fortieth birthdays are often a trigger.

Toska: Vladimir Nabokov described it best: “At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

Bakku-shan: a Japanese term for the experience of seeing a woman who appears attractive from behind but not from the front, like Tori Spelling.

Desenrascanco: a Portuguese word for pulling a MacGyver, getting yourself out of a sticky situation at the last minute. The story of Aron Ralston, the mountain climber who was trapped by a boulder in Utah and cut off his own arm to escape, springs to mind.

Esprit d’escalier: French for when you think of the perfect verbal comeback… far too late. Literally ‘the wit of the staircase’, meaning you couldn’t think of anything clever until walking down the stairs after the event.

I am looking for a word that describes the unbearable (although not physically painful) sensation one experiences when hearing fingernails scratching on a blackboard. Touching certain synthetic fabrics, such as car seat upholstery and imitation silk, gives me that same unbearably freakish feeling. I once knew a girl who got the same response from squeaking icing sugar between her fingers. Are there other things that make people feel that way? Does anyone have a word for it? Fill me in.