Better Sleep Through Mathematics?

Here at, we thought we’d heard it all.  That is, until we read about mathematician Mark Holmes and his graduate student Lisa Rogers at Troy, New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  They’re trying to use math to predict how different environmental, medical, or physical changes to a person’s body will affect their sleep.  Their story is told in a news release on the Renssalaer web site:

“We wanted to create a very interdisciplinary tool to understand the sleep-wake cycle,” Holmes said. “We based the model on the best and most recent biological findings developed by neurobiologists on the various phases of the cycle and built our mathematical equations from that foundation. This has created a model that is both mathematically and biologically accurate and useful to a variety of scientists.

“This is also an important example of how applied mathematics can be used to solve real issues in science and medicine,” Holmes continued.

To create the model, the researchers literally rolled up their sleeves and took to the laboratory before they put pencil to paper on the mathematical equations. Rogers spent last summer with neurobiologists at Harvard Medical School to learn about the biology of the brain. She investigated the role of specific neurotransmitters within the brain at various points in the sleep-wake cycle. The work taught the budding mathematician how to read EEG (electroencephalography) and EMG (electromyography) data on the brainwaves and muscle activity that occur during the sleep cycle. This biologic data would form the foundation of their mathematic calculations.

This research foundation allowed the team to develop a massive 11-equation model of the sleep-wake cycle. They are now working to input those differential equations into an easy-to-use graphic computer model for biologists and doctors to study.

If Mr. Holmes and Ms. Rogers can figure out the math of sleep … we say more power to them.  On most days it’s hard enough to balance a checkbook!  To get real world tips on how to get a better night’s rest, check out our list of 17 Healthful Sleep Tips, and read sleep articles on our Sleep Solutions page.