If you’ve ever tried to function during a bout of insomnia, or even after one less-than-restful night, you’ve probably noticed you’re more prone to making errors or slipping into “auto-pilot.” Have you ever zoned out during an office meeting without actually nodding off and closing your eyes? Have you ever felt like you nodded off while stopped at a red light, even though your eyes were open and watching your surroundings? Turns out parts of your brain may be taking short naps while you are awake, without even letting you know.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison have found evidence that fatigued nerve cells can take turns falling into a state similar to sleep, all while you’re technically awake. This can affect your alertness and work performance, and it’s one reason you’re more prone to making mistakes when you’re tired. EEGs have captured this activity, which researchers have dubbed “microsleep.”
Microsleep Studies in Rats
Researchers used probes to monitor groups of neurons in rats, then deprived the animals of sleep. They found some of the neurons in the sleep-deprived rats functioned as though they were sleeping when other EEG readings—and their activity levels—clearly indicated they were awake. When researchers subjected the rats to tasks involving reaching for sugar cubes, those that were sleep deprived made clumsy mistakes. This indicated that even small numbers of neurons involved in microsleep can have a notable impact on not only concentration, but on coordination as well.
The Dangers of Microsleeping
While reduced productivity is one thing, falling asleep behind the wheel of a vehicle is another. You’re sure to notice if you fall fully asleep at the wheel. It’s a terrifying experience. However, when you microsleep, you tend not to be aware of yourself falling in or out of consciousness. In fact, you can be sitting behind the wheel, even able to converse, while parts of your brain are taking a nap. Unfortunately, like the rats reaching for sugar cubes, your coordination is impaired and you’re more apt to make mistakes. On the road, these mistakes can be disastrous, even fatal.
Many people are able to take short naps during their workday, reporting that these “power naps” make a huge difference for them. Sometimes all someone needs is a 15-minute nap during their lunch hour to get past that feeling of tiredness.
While a bad night’s sleep is unavoidable from time to time, it can have profound effects on your health. If you feel you’re suffering from the effects of poor sleep, talk to a trusted health professional about treatment options. Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that comes in supplement form, can aid some sleep problems.