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Why Do We Need to Sleep?

TSUKUBA, JapanOutside the International Institute for Integrative Sleep Medicine, the heavy fragrance of sweet Osmanthus trees fills the air, and big golden spiders string their webs among the bushes. Two men in hard hats next to the main doors mutter quietly as they measure a space and apply adhesive to the slate-colored wall. The building is so new that they are still putting up the signs.

The institute is five years old, its building still younger, but already it has attracted some 120 researchers from fields as diverse as pulmonology and chemistry and countries ranging from Switzerland to China. An hour north of Tokyo at the University of Tsukuba, with funding from the Japanese government and other sources, the institute’s director, Masashi Yanagisawa, has created a place to study the basic biology of sleep, rather than, as is more common, the causes and treatment of sleep problems in people. Full of rooms of gleaming equipment, quiet chambers where mice slumber, and a series of airy work spaces united by a spiraling staircase, it’s a place where tremendous resources are focused on the question of why, exactly, living things sleep.

Ask researchers this question, and listen as, like clockwork, a sense of awe and frustration creeps into their voices. In a way, it’s startling how universal sleep is: In the midst of the hurried scramble for survival, across eons of bloodshed and death and flight, uncountable millions of living things have laid themselves down for a nice, long bout of unconsciousness. This hardly seems conducive to living to fight another day. “It’s crazy, but there you are,” says Tarja Porkka-Heiskanen of the University of Helsinki, a leading sleep biologist. That such a risky habit is so common, and so persistent, suggests that whatever is happening is of the utmost importance. Whatever sleep gives to the sleeper is worth tempting death over and over again, for a lifetime.

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