Professor Tung Tang tells him and his sister Kiran, while munching on guavas, that our brains have a policeman that controls the traffic between our waking hours and sleep time
The day usually starts early for Professor Tung Tang, the maverick scientist with his fantasia world of improvised musical instruments, which is why we call him Professor Tung Tang anyway!
The day usually starts early for him, as we mentioned.
But today he had overslept, and when he came out to tend to his garden, the sun rays were already on a comely prance on the leaves.
Part of the sky was shrouded, and this lent the weather a welcome respite from the sweltering summer heat.
The professor was pacing his garden, inspecting which of his plants would need more tending.
He looked up at the sky.
Fluffy pillows of pristine white clouds were lazying around like naughty girls giggling to each other.
Suddenly, he heard the voices of Hanuman Scifun and Kiran outside.
Kiran was scolding her brother as they entered the garden, but totally unbothered, Hanuman let out a loud yawn.
“This boy has turned a lazy bone during the lockdown. He never gets up for his classes on time, does not do any work that Maa tells him to do and even skips his homework because he over-sleeps,” Kiran said with a frown on her face while – somewhat indulgently ‑looking at Hanuman.
“Oh, may be some orange juice will do him better?” the professor suggested. “It’s rather pleasant today. Can we all sit out in the garden?” the worthy professor proffered.
He and Kiran went into his kitchen to fetch a jar of juice, while Hanuman lazily sat down on the grass.
By the time they came out with the three glasses of juice, Hanuman was lying on the grass fast asleep, purring gently.
“The guava tree has some ripe fruits. You can try them out,” the professor nudged Hanuman gently by his shoulder to wake him out of his sleep, even as Kiran arranged the jar and the glasses on the garden bench.
Through his slumber, though, words like ‘ripe guava’ had seeped into his mind, and Hanuman was soon up and about!
“What makes him sleep so much these days, professor?” Kiran asked exasperated?
“May be he is stressed, or it may be the light,” Professor said, looking at Hanuman affectionately, even as the little one picked the guavas.
There is a policeman in our brains, a tiny chap the size of a peanut, called the hypothalamus, which regulates the traffic flow of need to awake and need to sleep, and it works on the basis of a ‘traffic signal’ called melatonin
“What does stress or light have to do with sleep?” Kiran asked pouring the juice from the jar into the three glasses.
“Sleep is needed to restore our body energy helping us continue playing, fighting and also studying. So, over time, our body has designed a system which ensures that we sleep sufficiently.
“Light seems to influence this system the most. Since our brains cannot directly ‘see,’ our eyes talk to the brain telling it whether it is day or night.
“The brain, however, is wiser and so, as soon as the eyes tell the brain that it is night, the brain understands that it is time to sleep,” the professor said.
But what we eat, how much water we drink, our sense of not being well…can also change how the brain will tell us when to sleep or remain awake,” professor said, while Hanuman returned to the garden bench, his pocket full of guavas.
“I sleep because I feel sleepy. What can I do about it?” he protested at the discussions about his sleep.
“Exactly! Our bodies automatically regulate the process by telling us when to sleep or when to wake up. When our bodies need complete rest, the brain send its own self signals, saying, “sleep… sleep”, and so we you fall off to sleep,” said Professor Tung Tang, taking a large bite at a ripe guava.
“But where do the signals come from and who turns them on and off?,” Kiran asked, alternately sipping the juice and taking a bite at the guava.
“Oh… ho oho ho, policeman, policeman,” guffawed Professor Tung Tang in one of his rare moments of joviality.
“Policeman?” asked Hanuman.
“Yes, policeman…. See, here is this tiny chap called the hypothalamus, a peanut-sized structure deep inside the brain. That is like the traffic control policeman who regulates it all.
“Just like a team of traffic policemen sit in the control room regulating the signals, the hypothalamus contains groups of nerve cells that act as control centers affecting sleep and waking.
“The cells receive information about light exposure directly from the eyes, just like the police control room receives information about traffic movement.
“When our eyes see light, our brain gets signals that make us feel awoken. But when it is dark, the signals make us feel tired. This works like a natural clock in our body.
“So you see, it is my ‘natural clock’ that is making me sleepy. How can I be blamed for it?, Hanuman asked accusingly protesting his elder sister’s complaint about him being lazy.
“But why then professor is he sleeping till late in the day even when there is enough light?”
“Well, this clock also controls the production of a chemical called melatonin that tells your body when to sleep and when to wake up.
“When our bodies release more melatonin, we feel more tired. Our bodies usually start releasing melatonin in the evening, around bedtime and continues throughout the night, decreasing it again in the morning.
“Oh, okay, I see… when in the evenings the traffic signal turns red for a longer time, right!” squealed Hanuman, just about getting the point.
“Precisely!” said the professor. “However, the melatonin secretion cycle may also get disturbed for some other reasons‑lack of sleep, hyperactivity, lack of some nutrients, breathing problems,” Professor Tung Tang explained and then poured the last drop of juice down his throat.
“Look, it is not my fault,” Hanuman said while sitting on the bench swinging his legs and savouring the guava.
“And you must be dreaming when you sleep,” Professor asked, smiling at him.
“Yes. But I do not remember any of the dreams.”
“Don’t worry, most people do not. Dreams have proved that portions our brains are remarkably active even during parts of our sleep,” professor said, collecting the empty glasses from both of them.
“But professor, how do scientists know so much about sleep?” Kiran asked while picking up the tray.
“Okay,” smiled the professor mischievously. “By and by… we shall come to all that soon, my dearies!”
Also Read: Genes: A Baby’s Hair and All That!
Illustration by Sid Ghosh
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Archita specialises in science communication, and in this series she has created for children, she uses three fictional characters, Hanuman, a bit of an imp, his elder sister Kiran and Professor Tung Tang, a scientist who meddles in musical instruments.