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Does the Way You Wake Up Affect Your Health?

By: , Posted on: July 9, 2015

Garcia-Rill galaxy

When we awaken, the world is instantaneously in harmony. We are ourselves once again, no matter what nonsense we have been dreaming. We pick up exactly where we left off the day before, the memories flooding in about the day’s tasks.

When we awaken, blood flow to the thalamus and the brain stem increases over the first 15 minutes. It is only later that there are increases in blood flow to the frontal cortex. Yet, we wake up as ourselves; it does not take 15–20 min to figure out who we are. We are immediately ourselves when we awaken.

This suggests that subcortical regions have much to do with our sense of self. In addition, our highest functions are thought to be mediated by fast cortical oscillations, the 40 Hz rhythm, or gamma band oscillations. Yet gamma band activity has been discovered not only in the cortex but also in the hippocampus, cerebellum, basal ganglia, and, now, the reticular activating system (RAS). Not only that, but these are not independent oscillations, they are coherent depending on the task at hand. That is, the activity in cortical and subcortical regions is in synchrony. Under some conditions, gamma activity in subcortical areas even precedes cortical gamma activity.

What is the role of gamma band activity in the RAS? We know that the RAS receives a constant stream of information from the senses and also receives ongoing activity from within the brain. What is the unifying function of gamma band activity in the RAS? We proposed that the maintenance of gamma band activity in the RAS provides information for the process necessary to support a state capable of reliably assessing the world around us on a continuous basis. That is, it provides the process of preconscious awareness.

We are immediately ourselves when we awaken. – Edgar Garcia-Rill

The simple act of waking up now gains a much more complex role. It needs to integrate our world with ourselves, while we use other parts of our brains to formulate our plans and desires. As we will see, we may not be paying attention to some of these plans and desires, that is, we are not consciously paying attention to a mass of information that we process preconsciously. As such, the RAS is involved in anonymously formulating movements and actions of which we are not consciously (but only preconsciously) aware. This expands the purview of the background of activity in the RAS as not only allowing afferent information to flow into the brain but also establishing the background of activity on which we superimpose volition and free will.

Although many books deal with sleep and sleep disorders or waking functions like attention, learning, and memory, very few books address waking itself and the process of staying awake. Our brains provide the “content” of sensory experience, but a ­second ­element is required for perception, the “context” of sensory experience. This ­often-ignored part of our sensory experience is provided by the reticular ­activating system and, without it, we cannot appreciate or perceive the world around us.

KATV Interview with Dr. Edgar Garcia-Rill

Considering that we spend one-third of our lives asleep, this is an important and essential endeavor. In addition, a number of thorough texts on the etiology and manifestation of a number of sleep disorders are available. These books and others on sleep medicine provide the latest on diagnosis and treatment of many of these debilitating conditions. However, we spend two-thirds of our lives awake, and it is during these hours that we accomplish such things as writing books. It is during waking that we perform great feats and create wonderful things. A number of texts describe attention, selective attention, higher cognitive abilities, and learning and memory, but almost none deals with the concept of being awake and what it takes to stay awake.

This gap in knowledge is not surprising since it has only been in the last 5–7 years that some of the most critical information on the mechanisms behind waking has been revealed. This information forms the core of the book Waking and the Reticular Activating System in Health and Disease which deals mainly with disorders of waking rather than sleep.

About the Author: 

Edgar Garcia-RillDr. Edgar Garcia-Rill is a Professor of Neurobiology and Developmental Sciences, and Psychiatry in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). He also holds graduate faculty appointments in the Neurobiology and Developmental Sciences and Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences program. He is the Director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience, a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence.

Dr. Garcia-Rill will be interviewed on KATV in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Friday, July 10, at 11:30 am Central Time Zone. He will be talking about RAS, how RAS affects health, and more. To watch live, visit

waking and reticular activating system

To order a copy of Dr. Garcia-Rill’s new book Waking and the Reticular Activating System in Health and Disease, visit the Elsevier Store. Apply discount code STC215 for 25% off the list price and fee global shipping.

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