Considering we all spend roughly a third of our lives doing it, and we have virtually mastered before our first birthday, it’s surprising just how little we understand sleep. There are so many contradictions, so many misunderstandings, so many myths, and so many examples of other creatures which don’t match our needs.
Why do we dream? Nobody knows. Do all animals dream? Almost certainly not, but it’s clear some animals do. Do all animals sleep? No, many animals do not sleep, or at least, don’t sleep in the same way we do. To be honest, nobody even knows why we sleep, why we dream, and why we feel the way we do if we don’t get enough sleep, or a decent quality night’s sleep.
If you’re currently reading this curled up in comfort on a high quality memory foam mattress, tucked under a duvet and preparing for a good night’s sleep then you may well feel quite favourably towards the whole idea of sleep. On the other hand, if you’re slouched in front of a computer screen, bleary eyed and well aware that it’s going to be another late one tonight then the idea of sleep may appear to be a sign of weakness.
Is Sleep A Weakness?
It’s surprising just how many working people view sleep as weakness. I’ve seen people praise someone who has managed to do an ‘all nighter’, as though this is something to be sought, something to admire and something which significantly increases productivity.
Utter baloney. Doing an all nighter is not going to increase productivity. If anything it’s likely to reduce productivity, and could very well put lives at risk.
Consider ‘Dave’. He has worked a full day’s shift, but because of the pressure of time, targets, rivalry or staff shortages he has worked a night shift. He’s been awake for 19 hours straight, and is now ready to head home. He hops into his car, hailed a hero.
Consider Geoff. He finished work on time, and spent the entire evening in the Pig and Whistle downing several pints of his favourite strong German lager. He is now ready to head home. He hops into his car. Whether he is simply arrested for drunk driving, whether he is arrested for causing an accident whilst under the influence, or whether he spends years in jail thinking about the tragedy he caused to other families, it is clear that he would never be considered a hero.
The trouble is that in reality, Dave is every bit as dangerous as Geoff. Because research has shown that after 19 hours of being awake the human brain is operating at around the same level as someone who is considerably over the legal limit. As sleep deprivation continues the severity increases.
How The Brain Copes With Sleep Deprivation
Many people don’t appreciate this, and think that working overtime, staying up late and burning the midnight oil will increase productivity. In truth what happens is the brain slowly shuts down. But it doesn’t do this uniformly.
It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t really that long ago that we were out there on the plain dressed in animal skins, living in caves and hunting dinner with a piece of flint. The survival skills and instincts gained over many thousands of generations led us to cope with that lifestyle and its demands.
Today those same instincts and responses exist in all of us, regardless of whether your line manager needs the reports in by eight or your team is 2.3% down on last month’s output total.
If you lose the equivalent of a night’s sleep your brain powers down two key sections, called the parietal and occipital lobes. These normally consume large amounts of energy, being the parts of the brain most responsible for visual processing, sense integration and object manipulation. In other words, those parts of the brain responsible for ensuring we take in relevant information, process it, and do something with it. All of which is largely necessary when carrying out work.
Instead the brain redirects energy into the thalamus, the part of the brain responsible for keeping us awake. So effectively our brain is putting more effort into keeping us awake than it is actually processing information. So whilst we may congratulate ourselves on actually staying awake for so long, what we’re doing is just that – staying awake. What we’re achieving while staying awake is probably very poor.
Debunking The Sleep Myths
Then of course there’s the age old ‘catch up’ theory. That if we get extra sleep ahead of an all nighter, or we get a lie in after the all nighter, we’ll be fine. We won’t. First of all, sleep isn’t something you can stock up on in advance. It doesn’t matter if you’ve slept for a week, after a day’s work you’ll still need to go to sleep afterwards, or suffer the consequences.
And you can’t catch up on sleep too quickly either. For each hour of sleep you miss, you’ll need to have two the next day to feel properly recovered. For each day you don’t catch up, you’ll need to add yet more. Over a week you can end up being a full night’s sleep in debt, meaning that your brain just isn’t going to be performing, meaning your output will be very much down.
If you really want to perform well at work, get a decent night’s sleep, and don’t short-change yourself. Sleep has a habit of keeping a rather better tally of our debts than we like to think, and your brain isn’t on your side as much as you think it is. If you really want to succeed, go to bed, and stay there for the full stretch. Your parietal and occipital lobes will thank you for it. And so might your boss.