Sleep Cycle App: Precise or Placebo?
Sleep Cycle App: Precise or Placebo?

The website and smartphone apps like Sleep Cycle use the average human’s sleep pattern to determine the best window of time that you should wake up. The idea is that interrupting the “wrong” sleep cycle stage, such as slow-wave (“deep”) sleep or REM (rapid eye movement, when dreaming occurs), results in grogginess upon awakening, as many of us can attest. Sleep researchers call this phenomenon “sleep inertia.”

It’s such a big deal that, in the sleep laboratory, we techs are instructed not to wake participants if they’re in REM, even if the experimental recording time is over.

So when a friend told me that he only feels refreshed after (according to his sleep-tracking app) eight REM cycles, I was a little skeptical, given the average person will only experience four or five REM periods per night.

What’s the verdict on sleep-tracking apps? How do they work, and how accurate are they? Is it all a big scam, or perhaps the placebo effect at work?

How is sleep measured in the first place? To understand the premise of these apps, we must first understand how scientists quantify sleep: polysomnography.

Polysomnography (poly = many, somnus = sleep, graphein = to write) comprises of a series of electrodes (the electroencephalogram or EEG) designed to measure cortical brain activity. These electrodes pick up voltage fluctuations in ionic current flow across the particular area of neurons below which each electrode is strategically placed.

These fluctuations appear like waves on the computer monitor. In addition to the EEG, various sensors are also placed on the body to detect breathing and movement throughout the night.    Read More..

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