Garbage in the Brain

Alex’s shoulders had been slumping, his eyes rolling, and his head jerking. And now his hand was up. So I stopped by his desk.

“I gotta stand in the back of the room,” he said. “Can’t keep my eyes open.”

This was a daily battle. And not just for Alex. They all had their reasons: parents fighting late into the night, video games that just wouldn’t let loose, texting friends for hours in bed, late sports events and then homework to do, worrying—about world hunger or a coming war or that a boyfriend was about to breakup.

“You need to find a way to sleep,” I told Alex that day before I sent him to stand at the back of the room.

I wish I had known then what a recent study has shown about the importance of sleep. Perhaps the results of this study would have impacted Alex more than I did.

Sleep, the study found, is when the brain takes out the trash.

All day while the brain is awake, garbage builds up. As brain cells work, they excrete what they don’t need—carbon dioxide, ammonia, and protein waste. This garbage collects in the spaces between the cells.

But during sleep, brain cells shrink in size—as much as 60 percent. This opens up the “streets” of the brain. And that’s when cerebral spinal fluid flows through the brain flushing out the toxins.

“If you don’t get enough sleep,” I wish I had known to tell Alex, “you wake up with heaps of garbage still in your brain. No wonder you feel like trash.”

Would this have been enough to motivate Alex to turn off his phone at ten?

Maybe not.

Still, the imagery from this study might be striking enough to catch the attention of a middle school kid.

2 Replies to “Garbage in the Brain”

  1. I had read about this phenomenon. This must have been what God had in mind when God created us to have work and rest. The same with the Sabbath. My son wakes up way too early for school and gets to bed too late at night, like so many others. There has to be a better way.


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