Vitals & Bits #15: The Reticular Formation

Vitals & Bits #15: The Reticular Formation

Whitny Doyle R.N.
3 min read
Vitals & Bits #15: The Reticular Formation
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Everyone has a dark secret, biologically speaking. Perhaps it’s a mole shaped like Fozzie Bear. Maybe a habitual after-dinner fart marathon. Could be bad breath, or slow sperm, or toe hair.

Even the Adonis-like Dr. Muscles eventually developed a biological glitch. His arrived suddenly one night, in the form of unremitting, head-crushing, intensely sonorous snoring. I’d lie awake next to him, pillow over my head and hands clasped over my ears, quietly emitting an unbroken stream of profanity so foul and hateful that you’d think I was being tortured within inches of my life, rather than just being kept awake by my boyfriend’s snoring. Clearly, sleep deprivation doth make monsters of us all.

One night, a month or so into Dr. Muscles’ nightly snorathon, I found my mind wandering as I listened to his billion-decibel honking. I started to think about a book I had been reading that day, and I began picturing myself as one of the characters in the book. Soon my mind descended into that dim, loose-association cognitive limbo that happens just before sleep. The next thing I remember, I woke up the following morning, well-rested and feeling like the star athlete on a box of Wheaties cereal.

So how did I manage to fall asleep amidst the nocturnal music of Dr. Muscles’ obstructed upper airway? My reticular formation, or a part of the brainstem that acts like a gatekeeper for all kinds of incoming sensory data, can take the credit. The reticular formation is responsible for a variety of functions, from helping to maintain balance and resting muscle tone, to helping the brain integrate sensory data with motor coordination. Part of the reticular formation’s job is to determine which sensory data is allowed to reach the conscious part of the brain. Luckily for me, the reticular formation can learn to ignore repetitive, meaningless stimuli, such as the sound of someone snoring. This allows the brain to quickly process and react to new or unusual stimuli, like a smoke alarm.

Though my reticular formation learned to ignore the sound of Dr. Muscles’ snoring, it never learned to ignore the hundreds of other handsome men prowling around the hospital, with their beepers constantly chirping inside the pocket of some gracefully crumbled lab coat or some overly laundered pair of scrubs. Oh, hospital land. With so much to enjoy, who needs a boyfriend or sleep anyways?
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