Where ARE you?
I must have knocked on the door for ten minutes. Then a window or two. I called them on the phone. Nada. There were shoes outside the door and a bike was propped against the fence. I could see recent signs of eating. I knocked again, frustrated that there was no answer. I was confident that someone was home.
In fact I was certain, because this was my sister-in-law’s place, and I had talked to her on the phone less than 10 minutes ago, when I said I would come and collect my daughter. I was getting a little testy.
The phone went. I answered it. It was my sister-in-law.
“Hi B” she said, all sweetness and light.
“Hey” I said, acting dead casual like and trying to avoid the sourness and dark.
“Where are you?” she asked. The nerve. What kind of question is that I wondered, staggered at her colossal idiocy.
“Outside the front door…”. I think I managed to say it without hinting “Duh!”.
There was a pause, which I discovered later was my sister-in-law actually coming to the front door and looking out.
“Um, B?” she said, sweetly enough for me to drown in it. “Which house?”
What went wrong?
You see, my elder daughter had been sleeping over because my wife was in labor from the night before. We were up all night. Our second daughter was born at 4.40am. We stopped at McDonalds for take out at 8.30am, home by 9am, and I went around to collect my daughter at 10am.
Except that I went to the wrong house. It had been the right house once, but she’d moved. Some months before. To a new house, in a different street.
(Happily, I’m good at laughing at myself. There’s plenty of material after all, and I still get teased about this some years later.)
Analyzing the Duh moment
We’ve all experienced lack of sleep, and I’m going to assume that most people are familiar with some or many of the common physical complaints we have when we don’t get enough sleep. You could read elsewhere about irritability, headaches, poor immune responses, diabetes, weight gain and probably a bunch of others also. Our interest here though is in the psychological. Given that most of us experience sleep deprivation at some stage, albeit for different reasons, some understanding would be helpful.
Having seen me at my sister-in-law’s home, now you know what sleep deprivation can do to you. As an aside, it was also an interesting observation about how an older, more used, tougher memory was my brain’s default subroutine, and how the newer one wasn’t as strong. When my mental resources were stretched, my brain reverted to the familiar subroutine.
As a bit of background, remember that the brain has a limited quantity of resources to do what it needs to do. Sleep prepares us for the day ahead and helps us fill the bucket of limited resources we need to get through the day. For our most effective performance therefore, we need to be shrewd about how we allocate the work we have to do given the mental resources we have available. Particularly, this has to do with the attention we give to a task.
Putting together what we know about how we operate, we can conclude this: in brain terms, we need enough completed sleep cycles every night to function optimally during the day.
How the brain suffers from lack of sleep
While it’s a little more complicated than I’m making it here, the short version is this. Generally, when we lack sleep, the brain over-compensates on the mental resources it puts into a task. In other words, a tired brain pours more effort into completing a task to get the same, or a worse result than a rested brain. The consequence of this is that we far more quickly run out of mental puff.
On simple tasks we can manage pretty well even when sleep deprived, and particularly if it’s something we know well. However, the more complex the task, the more resources are required, and the more difficulty we have. Consequently, we are also more likely to underperform. As you saw from my episode with my sister in law, we can also revert to older, long ingrained patterns and behaviours.
Where this becomes obvious is in work that requires us to do some or all of the following tasks
- Creativity and innovation – you’ll deliver old, unimaginative material
- Decision making, including risk and reward judgments
- Adjusting our response to new information or situations as they happen
- Making new connections or intuitive leaps between pieces of information
- or even just concentrating hard,
most of which are higher level functions that use the energy hungry frontal cortex. This is the chunk of your brain sitting right behind your forehead, hence the name frontal. It’s amazingly clever, but it chews through mental gas faster than anything else.
Sleep is also strongly implicated in how we remember. Memories involve three basic steps, which are
- getting it in, also called acquisition, encoding
- keeping it in, also called storage
- getting it out, or retrieval.
Sleep seems to be important for consolidating memories and helping our brains sort, file and delete what it doesn’t need. It needs to do this at a cellular level, right at the synapse, on significant scale. Additionally, neurons repair overnight, and new connections are also generated.
If you’re sleep deprived, there can be a number of reasons, so let’s eliminate some of those which can’t be easily changed. New parent? Have to roll with that one. Teenager? Note that the circadian rhythms of teenagers and the make up of sleep moves a bit in these years, generally to a later cycle, so we need to work with that one too. Watching tv late, playing MMPORPGs till 3 in the morning? Ok, there’s some room to move there.
And let’s separate the sleep deprived, who are missing sleep, from those with insomnia who can’t get any even though they’re trying. More on that later.
So here’s the take home bit
We are clearly affected by loss of sleep. If you’re at school or college, start studying early. Better to give your brain time to consolidate memories properly and the opportunity to function well come exam time. Cramming is ok for exams in terms of immediate memory, but it generally incurs late nights just prior to an exam, which means that you’re below par on the day.
For us all, during the next day, we can improve performance for short periods and by a limited amount by using various interventions. The most popular is, of course, caffeine, now available in a range of drinks. There are also medical stimulants. However, while these might manage performance, they in no way restore the lost sleep, or the benefits of sleep. So while I love coffee and have, ahem, used it medicinally, sleep is a better preparation for good performance than caffeine is as a solution for bad.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Neural regeneration, memory consolidation
What’s it like for you?
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