Sleep is still a mystery but here’s a pretty good summary of the state of the latest theories of sleep: “While We Sleep, Our Mind Goes on an Amazing Journey”
The waking brain is optimized for collecting external stimuli, the sleeping brain for consolidating the information that’s been collected. At night, that is, we switch from recording to editing, a change that can be measured on the molecular scale. We’re not just rotely filing our thoughts—the sleeping brain actively curates which memories to keep and which to toss.
About the importance of sleep:
Good sleep likely also reduces one’s risk of developing dementia. A study done in mice by Maiken Nedergaard at the University of Rochester, in New York, suggests that while we’re awake, our neurons are packed tightly together, but when we’re asleep, some brain cells deflate by 60 percent, widening the spaces between them. These intercellular spaces are dumping grounds for the cells’ metabolic waste—notably a substance called beta-amyloid, which disrupts communication between neurons and is closely linked to Alzheimer’s. Only during sleep can spinal fluid slosh like detergent through these broader hallways of our brain, washing beta-amyloid away.
And about the importance of not going to sleep too soon:
Sleep reinforces our memory so powerfully—not just in stage 2, where we spend about half our sleeping time, but throughout the looping voyage of the night—that it might be best, for example, if exhausted soldiers returning from harrowing missions did not go directly to bed. To forestall post-traumatic stress disorder, the soldiers should remain awake for six to eight hours, according to neuroscientist Gina Poe at the University of California, Los Angeles. Research by her and others suggests that sleeping soon after a major event, before some of the ordeal is mentally resolved, is more likely to turn the experience into long-term memories.
The importance, or lack thereof, of dreams is still much debated.