Sleep on the Brain- Why getting your Zzzs should be a top priority

We've all had one of those days.

Let's face it: we've all had MANY of those days.

Those days when we just aren't functioning at an acceptable level. We forget to pick up a kid from practice. We desperately search for our keys for what seems like forever, and then we're late to work. We're subpar at best.

Or at worst, we forget a loved one's birthday or an equally important event we should always remember.

There's usually a common thread running through our braindead days- LACK OF SLEEP.

Or rather, lack of good sleep. The kind that leaves you rested, but not groggy. Peaceful, but energetic.

Look around you. Our society is in dire need of more time in the sack. We need to be mentally able to keep up with our increasingly fast-paced lives. Lives that demand us to think faster and smarter, all while maintaining our sanity.

Our sleep is the key to our sanity. It keeps us functioning both cognitively and emotionally. And there's a lot of science to back this up.

Put the snooze button or your hectic browsing for just a minute, and let's explore something important to every human: the link between sleep and brain function.


The Science

The human brain is an amazing thing. Some might even say it holds the key to our existence. It stores our memories and ensures our survival. Our brain is the reason we can put the keys in the ignition every morning and drive to work. It's the reason we can travel to space, the engine behind every major theory and revolution in history.

Lack of sleep is a DIRECT THREAT to the mechanisms which make our lives possible. Here's why-

Sleep deprivation has been shown to compromise our brains at a frighteningly basic level. Not getting enough shut-eye was shown to produce severely decreased activity across the whole brain, particularly in what's called the cortico-thalamic network.

This network is responsible both for your attention span and higher cognitive processes. Ipso facto, your ability to think and hold your attention on a simple level, as well as an intellectual one, is completely undermined when you don't get sufficient sleep.

For the corporate types, this makes remembering that monthly budget presentation all the more difficult.

For the creative types, this can make imagining and forming concepts almost impossible.

And how many people do we hear constantly claiming to have ADD? Perhaps their sleep deprivation is to blame instead.

The science is clear. One of the MAIN functions of sleep in humans is to restore normal brain activity and behavior. Without that restoration, we're reduced to an ADD-laden, creatively impotent species. Sound dramatic? Wait until we address the emotional factor.

The Emotional Brain

We know that lack of sleep has an adverse effect on our cognitive functioning, but our mighty brains regulate much more than this in our lives. As much as our basic and intellectual reasoning are crucial to survival, EMOTION Is arguably just as essential to the human experience.
And the brain's in charge of this too.

When we fail to get the sleep we need, our emotional lives will inevitably suffer. (Think: the friend whose birthday was forgotten, the sad kid left at soccer practice.)

To measure the mal effect sleeplessness has on human emotions, an interesting study was done on a group of 54 healthy adults. The individuals were asked to identify the dominant emotion in a series of photos of human facial expressions. They did so in both a normal and sleep-deprived state. The majority of the sleep-deprived subjects were UNABLE to differentiate between emotions of happiness and sadness in the photos. They were only able to recognize the more primitive, survival-oriented facial cues.

Hold the phone.

This is pretty alarming when you think about it. The ability to read emotions in others, ESPECIALLY on such a fundamental level of happy/sad, is what makes us capable of interacting with people in an appropriate way.

FURTHERMORE, lack of sleep specifically impairs the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that helps us make proper emotional responses. It signals when we should react with empathy, or disbelief, or whatever is in the context of that particular human moment.

This might explain the emotional irrationality we often see in overworked, tired people. Their brain is literally incapable of replying appropriately in social situations. When you think about it, these implications are sweeping. What if we look at day-to-day conflict through the lens of sleep? Perhaps that disagreement last week could've been avoided had both parties gotten sufficient shut-eye …Maybe that's a stretch. Maybe not.

Drowsiness: a threat to public safety?

In addition to making you an insensitive jerk, your sleepless nights could be putting others at risk on a physical level.

A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that drivers who receive only five to six hours of sleep are TWO TIMES MORE LIKELY TO CRASH as drivers who sleep for seven or more hours. And the less sleep you get, the more impaired you are.

Drivers with only four to five hours are FOUR TIMES MORE LIKELY to be involved in an automobile accident. A staggering 20% of fatal car accidents are caused by a drowsy driver. Those are some scary numbers. All this time it's been drilled into us not to drink and drive, but we've been ignoring an equally dangerous threat.

Sleep deprivation makes us dangerous drivers specifically because of its effect on our brains in two areas: reaction time and visuomotor performance. We aren't able to react as quickly to an unexpected situation. The spatial part of our brain is impaired. So while our brain can usually connect our reactive response, our vision and motor skills (this is merely a breakdown of what it means to drive); suddenly that connection is lost.

The result? We're crashing our cars. A lot.

I don't want to be an idiotic, emotionally unreasonable person and an intoxicated driver to boot. How much sleep do I need for optimal brain function?

The experts collectively agree you should get seven to nine hours per night for optimum health. Have to pull an all-nighter to finish a report, study for an exam, or cater to a sick child?

There's some good news here.

It's called RECOVERY SLEEP. It refers to the night after a night of light sleeping. A study on recovery sleep showed that getting just ONE NIGHT of at least eight hours of sleep will completely restore your brain to its normal capacity. It will reduce all the previous mal effects on cognition. And if you have to pull a few all-nighters, recovery sleep will still be there to rescue you. The same study found that two consecutive nights of sleep for 10 plus hours will repair your brain from chronic sleep restriction.


So how can I get more of the sleep my brain needs?

Why you are or are not able to fall asleep and stay asleep depends on an abundance of factors. A healthy diet and regular exercise are key determinants. Eating better and exercising more will always improve sleep. Stress and anxiety are also huge factors. Meditation, breathing techniques, and the increasingly popular use of weighted blankets can help diminish these stressors in the short and long-term. Hormonal imbalances, situations beyond our control, fear: these things will also prevent you from catching your Zzzs.

So find out what's really going on with you. And find a solution to get those delicious seven to nine hours that, let's face it, will make us all better people.

Who would've thought that not getting enough rest could actually make us irrational, less empathetic human beings?

Probably you, depending on how tired you are.

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Yoo, Seung-Schik, et al. "The Human Emotional Brain without Sleep - a Prefrontal Amygdala Disconnect." Current Biology, vol. 17, no. 20, 23 Oct. 2007, pp. R877-R878.,

Aubrey, Allison. "Drivers Beware: Crash Rate Spikes With Every Hour Of Lost Sleep." National Public Radio, Inc., NPR, 6 Dec. 2016, 12:01,

Alhola, Paula, and Päivi Polo-Kantola. "Sleep Deprivation: Impact on Cognitive Performance."Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, Oct. 2007, pp. 553-567.,