Secrets of Sleep Science: From Dreams to Disorders

Course No. 1942
Professor H. Craig Heller, Ph.D.
Stanford University
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Course No. 1942
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Course Overview

For many of us, sleep is one of life’s greatest pleasures. For others, sleep represents a nightly struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, rest comfortably, and even remain safe until morning. But what is sleep exactly, and why must we do it every night?

Despite the fact that we spend about one-third of our lives in slumber, scientists still aren’t completely certain. Finding the function of sleep is one of the biggest—and most intriguing—challenges facing biologists today.

What is clear: Sleep is as essential to life as food and water. It impacts virtually every aspect of our lives, from our mood to the functioning of our organs, and it contributes to learning and memory, better performance at work, and a more healthy and productive wakeful life overall.

A lack of sleep impairs your cognitive abilities, exacerbates or leads to psychological problems, and leaves you vulnerable to a long list of chronic medical issues. And the consequences of too little sleep extend beyond the personal. From causing auto accidents to factoring into major disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, sleep deprivation imposes a heavy toll on society.

Clearly, there’s tremendous value in studying sleep that goes far beyond mere fascination. Educating yourself on the subject may, without exaggeration, save your life or the life of someone you love. The frightening reality is that dire consequences can develop after only a few days of inadequate sleep.

Secrets of Sleep Science: From Dreams to Disorders is your opportunity to access groundbreaking research on the complex and enigmatic phenomenon of sleep, straight from a scientist at the forefront of the field. In these 24 engrossing lectures, award-winning Stanford University professor and researcher H. Craig Heller reveals how far neuroscientists and biologists have come on their quest to pinpoint the principal functions of sleep—which remain a matter of intense debate.

Understand Why Sleep Debts Must Be Paid

Early on in this course, you’ll learn that your brain forces you to fall asleep to repay an accumulated sleep deficit—no matter how dangerous the circumstances. You’ll also learn the myriad ways sleep loss is associated with increased risk for serious health problems such as

  • obesity,
  • diabetes,
  • depression, and
  • reduced resistance to infectious disease.

Backed by compelling scientific evidence, Professor Heller illuminates what happens in the sleeping brain all the way down to the cellular and molecular level. You’ll investigate what biological changes may be produced by wakefulness and reversed during sleep, in addition to

  • the catastrophic ways our circadian clocks can fail;
  • coping mechanisms for jet lag, shift work, and insomnia;
  • disorders such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome;
  • parasomnias such as sleepwalking, night terrors, and sleep-related eating disorder; and
  • how proper “sleep hygiene” can help you improve your own quality of sleep.

You’ll also examine the critical role sleep plays in our capacity to form memories, and you’ll encounter astounding animal research that ranges from studies of aquatic mammals that sleep with half of their brains at a time to the deep sleep of hibernation in squirrels and bears.

Discover the Architecture of Sleep

Widespread interest in sleep goes back to ancient times, yet the study of sleep is relatively new. In fact, the first insights into the physiology of sleep didn’t occur until 1929, when the electroencephalograph was developed to monitor patterns of electrical activity in the brain.

As Professor Heller explains, these EEG recordings allowed scientists to identify REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM states that are the defining features of sleep. You’ll explore both REM and non-REM sleep in depth, including how they cycle throughout the night.

  • Non-REM sleep EEG recordings show a high-amplitude, slow-wave pattern indicating that large populations of neurons are firing in synchrony.
  • REM sleep, frequently called “dreaming sleep,” creates a low-amplitude, fast pattern similar to a waking EEG.

Then, using basic concepts of electricity, you’ll look at the cellular and molecular mechanisms of falling asleep, the many discrete brain structures involved in the control of sleep and wakefulness, and the homeostatic regulation that matches sleep intensity to need.

You’ll trace how your all-important circadian rhythms emerge shortly after birth but continue to change over the course of your lifetime, and you’ll get an introduction to the neuroanatomy and neurochemistry of sleep, including how medications and other factors influence sleep.

Secrets of Sleep Science also features a thought-provoking lecture on the physiology of what may be the least-understood aspect of sleep: dreaming. Taking into consideration the Freudian and Jungian theories on the topic as well as the latest research, you’ll sift through

  • the possible functions of dreams;
  • the notion that dreams hold meaning;
  • anecdotal evidence suggesting dreams inspire creativity;
  • why you only sometimes remember your dreams; and
  • why dream amnesia may be crucial to maintaining mental health.

Why Sleep Goes Awry

From sleepy sickness to the rare fatal familial insomnia, sleep pathologies and disorders are among the most fascinating—and often heartbreaking—topics you’ll cover in Secrets of Sleep Science. You may find the information on identifying and treating sleep apnea of particular value, as you or your partner may snore and repeatedly struggle to breathe during sleep without even realizing it.

Professor Heller also offers simple behavioral methods to conquer bouts of insomnia and outlines possible treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, which frequently involves incessant, extreme nightmares that feel all too real.

In the latter half of the course, you’ll get the opportunity to learn about the professor’s own research, which suggests a promising link between sleep-related systems and the cognitive impairment associated with Down syndrome.

A Remarkable Learning Experience

Professor Heller’s first-hand experiments, astute analysis, and obvious passion for the study of sleep make him the ideal guide for this riveting subject. Not only does he elucidate the most up-to-date findings and ideas this field has to offer, but, as a researcher and veteran educator, he possesses the experience and authority to offer his own expert interpretations.

Both seasoned students of biology and those with a casual appreciation for science will find Secrets of Sleep Science filled with astonishing insights. If you’ve ever wondered why we say “sleep like a baby”; why adolescents find it so hard to get up for school; or why your grandfather dozes in his chair during the day but complains of being unable to sleep at night; this is the course for you.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Sweet Sleep—Essential for a Healthy Life
    Professor Heller introduces you to the many consequences of short or disrupted sleep, along with accounts of medical mistakes and large-scale disasters likely to have occurred due to sleep deprivation. Contemplate our “National Sleep Deficit” and learn the professor’s hypothesis for the purpose of sleep, which science has yet to fully explain. x
  • 2
    What Is Sleep?
    Given the long-standing interest in sleep, why is the science of sleep so relatively new? As you identify the defining features of sleep as a foundation for later lectures, you explore the tools researchers use to study sleep patterns and what experiments have taught us about the key characteristics of REM and non-REM sleep, including dreams. x
  • 3
    Sleep across the Night
    Examine hypnograms that show how the various stages of REM and non-REM sleep cycle throughout the night. Then, find out how the REM and non-REM sleep states relate, how they change throughout the sleep phase, and why the brain may create changes in sleep intensity to help you “pay back” a sleep deficit. x
  • 4
    Sleep across the Lifespan
    Is there a biological basis for the sleep changes that commonly occur over a person’s lifespan? Learn how your brain’s circadian rhythms regulate sleep, then compare the sleep patterns of precocial and altricial species. Discover the disorders that can impair the restorative quality of sleep and problems associated with sleeping too much. x
  • 5
    Who in the World Sleeps?
    There are thousands of animal species in the world. Do they all have the same need to sleep as we do? Learn the three basic characteristics of sleep that can generally be applied to animals, then investigate the sleep patterns of various species, including migratory birds, arthropods, monotremes, and marine mammals that are able to sleep on only one side of their brains at a time. x
  • 6
    The Timing of Sleep
    In the first of two lectures on understanding the clock in your brain and how it controls virtually every aspect of physiology and behavior, you’ll learn the essential characteristics of circadian rhythms and how working against your clock can result in health and performance problems. Investigate phase advances and delays related to jet lag and shift work. x
  • 7
    The Wheels of the Circadian Clock
    As you turn to the cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for the characteristics of circadian rhythms, the professor offers a basic lesson in molecular genetics before discussing “clock genes” and how they can constitute a negative feedback system with a delay in the feedback loop. x
  • 8
    The Deep Sleep of Hibernators
    Hibernation is an adaptation that enables some warm-blooded animals to turn down their thermostats for spans of hours to months in an effort to conserve energy. In the first of two lectures that explore the neural systems that control sleep and wakefulness, investigate the evolutionary explanations for and mechanisms of hibernation in squirrels and bears, as well as daily torpor in birds. x
  • 9
    The Neuroanatomy and Neurochemistry of Sleep
    Many discrete structures in the brain are involved in the control of sleep and wakefulness. Delve into neuroanatomy and neurochemistry, which are necessary to understand how and why we sleep, and how medications and other factors influence sleep. Grasp the significance of discoveries by Giuseppe Moruzzi, Constantin von Economo, and others through an in-depth examination of sleep pathologies. x
  • 10
    The Neurophysiology of Sleep
    Go a step further in discovering the cellular function of non-REM sleep by identifying the cellular changes produced by wakefulness and reversed during sleep, and investigating the processes underlying the generation of slow-wave activity on the EEG. Learn about the fundamental principles of electrical circuits as you explore how a neuron functions like a tiny battery. x
  • 11
    Sleep Disorders—Narcolepsy
    Narcolepsy is an incurable neurological disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness, disrupted nighttime sleep, bizarre hallucinations at sleep onset, and cataplexy. Analyze research exploring the possibility of a genetic component to this disorder in humans and canines, and learn what medications and other treatments are available to manage it. x
  • 12
    The Strange World of Dreams
    What are dreams and what do they mean? Examine Freudian-Jungian psychoanalytic theory and methods relating to the unconscious as well as scientific hypotheses for the occurrence of dreams. Consider the therapeutic potential of “lucid dreaming” for treating nightmares in post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers and the possibility that dreaming may enhance our ability to be creative. x
  • 13
    Functions of Sleep—Fueling the Brain
    In the first of several lectures that explore hypotheses on the function of sleep, focus on the idea that sleep is for the restoration of brain energy reserves that are depleted during periods of wakefulness. Analyze the relationship between sleep and glycogen metabolism, as well as the molecule adenosine. x
  • 14
    The Timing and Function of REM Sleep
    Why do non-REM and REM cycle, with non-REM always first? Why is non-REM sleep deeper early in the night? Delve into the fundamental relationship between non-REM and REM and question the common assumption that the need for sleep builds during wakefulness. Extend your analysis into a hypothesis about the basic function of REM sleep. x
  • 15
    Sleep and Learning—Procedural Memory
    In studying the interactions between sleep and the stages of procedural memory—including encoding, consolidation, stabilization, reactivation, and reconsolidation—you’ll focus on experiments that seek to identify which type of sleep contributes to the consolidation of procedural memories and whether this effect can be exploited to maximize learning. x
  • 16
    Sleep and Declarative Memory
    Turn now to declarative memory and the ways that sleep impacts our capacity to form and integrate conscious memories and improves our ability to use the facts we remember. Explore hypotheses about memory consolidation, reactivation, and reconsolidation by analyzing a working model of two-step memory processes involving the hippocampus and cortex. x
  • 17
    Sleep and Memory in Animals
    For both humans and animals, sleep plays an important role in memory consolidation and therefore, learning. Focus on evidence that sleep promotes structural changes in the nervous system, then move on to the neurophysiological processes of memory consolidation. Conclude by looking at factors that can disrupt the sleep-related functions required for learning and memory. x
  • 18
    Sleep and Learning Disability
    Using your understanding of how sleep is critically involved in learning and memory, explore whether an underlying cause for learning disabilities may be related to sleep systems or mechanisms, and whether they offer a route to a therapy. Consider the potential for improving learning and memory in individuals with Down syndrome, specifically. x
  • 19
    When You Cannot Sleep—Insomnia
    Move on from lectures exploring how we “sleep to learn” to the first of several lectures concerned with “learning to sleep.” Differentiate between primary and secondary insomnias as you identify some of the major causes of sleep disruption, and confront the consequences suffered by those who delay sleep—both intentionally and unintentionally. x
  • 20
    Sleep Apnea
    Sleep apnea is a major cause of insomnia, yet it’s often misdiagnosed. First, touch on central sleep apnea in infants and sudden infant death syndrome, then delve into the causes, signs, consequences, and treatments associated with obstructive sleep apnea—the most common form of the disorder in adults. x
  • 21
    Behavior during Sleep—Parasomnias
    Make sense of various types of parasomnias—undesirable behaviors or phenomena that occur predominantly or exclusively during sleep—including sleep walking, sleep-related eating disorder, night terrors, periodic limb movement, sleep paralysis, and sexsomnia. Then, consider how the legal principle of mens rea applies to sleepwalkers who have allegedly committed heinous crimes. x
  • 22
    Sleep and the Rest of the Body
    Return to a question posed in the lecture on sleep in the animal kingdom: Why take the brain off-line during sleep if the function of sleep is not for the brain? Look at experiments studying the effects of sleep loss on rats as you investigate sleep’s role in a range of physiological processes. Then, see how shortened sleep contributes to obesity and immune system failure in humans. x
  • 23
    Improving Sleep
    How can you improve your quality of sleep? Start by delving into the efficacy and potential dangers of various pharmaceutical solutions to the problem of insomnia, including herbal remedies such as kava-kava and chamomile tea; barbiturates; benzodiazepines; caffeine; and amphetamines. Then, look at the nonpharmaceutical approaches of good sleep hygiene and cognitive behavioral therapy. x
  • 24
    Sleep in the Future and the Future of Sleep
    Will we ever fully comprehend the function of sleep? See how sleep and treatment for sleep problems might change in years to come, and consider how continuing progress in understanding sleep’s role in learning and memory processes may enhance education and hold therapeutic potential for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. x

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  • 184-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

H. Craig Heller

About Your Professor

H. Craig Heller, Ph.D.
Stanford University
Dr. H. Craig Heller is the Lorry I. Lokey/Business Wire Professor of Biological Sciences and Human Biology at Stanford University. He earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Yale University. Over the past three to four decades, virtually all biology undergraduates at Stanford have learned physiology from Professor Heller. In recognition of his outstanding performance, he received the Walter J. Gores Award for excellence in...
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Secrets of Sleep Science: From Dreams to Disorders is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 61.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very effective! I fell asleep 5 min into watching the course. I now us this class as a sleep aid and listen to it at a low volume until I doze of, works like a charm every time.
Date published: 2020-08-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Secrets of Sleep Science I wish you would ask me in a few weeks, after I have taken several of the lectures because I have only listened to two of them so that far. But I can say I am finding them fascinating to this point. I am finding the professor easy to listen to and his explanations are good. I am looking forward to viewing/listening to more of them.
Date published: 2020-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course! This is a very interesting and informative course! It is comprehensive and packed with interesting information. I would caution that it is very technical, with a lot of references to brain structures and biological and chemical processes. It is dense with material, and I've gone back and replayed quite a few segments several times to be sure i was following. This is not a self-help or how-to book. It is a great survey of current understanding of why and how we sleep. As a mental health provider who treats a lot of clients with insomnia and apnea, I've been able to better understand the nature of my clients' sleep problems, and to integrate these insights into my approach to helping clients.
Date published: 2019-03-31
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 1st 20 chpts for MDs & scientists; last 4 useful This looks like a formal 4th year college course with [bookend chapts] added for those of us who are not medical doctors or chemistry scientists. Professor Heller was great and his delivery even greater. So how can I rate something like this? To illustrate my point: if I gave a Nobel prize winner - which took the gold medal on “WHY BRASS DOORKNOBS ARE BETTER THAN BRONZE DOORKNOBS” – most of you would say “so what?” (1-star). But if you were in the door business, you’d give me rave reviews (5-stars) for the same course. Obviously relevance is key. Perhaps TheGreatCourses needs a second category rating (1-5 stars) of “NEWS I CAN USE”.
Date published: 2018-11-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from good overview and great detail I suffer from sleep apnea fortunately diagnosed by my very capable GP some years ago. I found the course very very informative. The lecturer has a rapid fire style setting forth the research and drawing his conclusion.It is up to the student to decide if Dr. Heller is being preachy or just enthusiastic in some areas. I sympathize with his zeal because had my OSA not been diagnosed I would likely not be here to write this review. A minor semi complaint Dr. Heller in his commanding view of the research sets forth in some detail the sometimes gruesome procedures on lab animals used to obtain the information needed by scientists in this area of science. I'm not a PETA member but I winced once or twice. In summary, this is a great course. The necessary travels into molecular biology is a little dense but well explained with some appreciated humor from Dr. Heller. His lectures are well documented and his conclusions sound. Well worth the cost and the time.
Date published: 2018-10-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Sleep is a mysterious subject. We have only viewed three of the lectures, but have found them to be informative. They seem authoritative. We have some Fitbit data on our sleep, so his comments are striking near to home. But these lectures on sleep could use some more graphics, especially when talking about Fourier transforms of brain waves. Some spectral density plots would have been nice. But the lecturer gets his info across effectively.
Date published: 2018-08-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Detailed science of sleep Prof Heller is a fine lecturer &steeped in his subject. The science lectures on research in progress are perhaps beyond the average listener, but the course overall is timely & comprehensive.
Date published: 2018-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent One of my personal favorites, and I have bought a lot of TGC courses.
Date published: 2018-03-17
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