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Ever zoned out in the middle of a meeting only to jolt awake a few seconds later? We’ve all experienced those brief moments of in-between consciousness, where your mind is somehow asleep and awake at the same time. There’s an apt term for it, too: microsleep.
Because microsleep lasts only a few seconds, it can be easy to assume that it’s a harmless phenomenon. But the reality is that microsleep is uncontrollable, which means you can experience it anywhere and at any time. The worst part is that some people might not even realize that they’re asleep.
Here’s a look at the causes and dangers of microsleep and some ways to prevent it.
In the simplest terms, microsleep can be defined as brief, involuntary periods of sleep that typically last under 30 seconds.
The warning signs are easy to identify: excessive yawning, droopy eyelids, dropping your head, and slow processing of information. But even though the signs are there, you might not always notice it happening. This is because sleep needs to last at least a minute or two for your brain to remember it.
During microsleep, some parts of your brain shut down while the others remain awake. A study published in the journal Neuroimage explored what happens in the brain during microsleep by keeping 18 volunteers awake in a lab for 22 hours. The volunteers were then put in a functional magnetic resonance imagine (fMRI) machine and asked not to fall asleep. However, the participants periodically experienced bouts of microsleep.
When they dozed off, researchers noticed reduced activity in the thalamus, the part of the brain that’s responsible for regulating sleep. More interestingly, the fMRI also detected increased activity in parts of the brain associated with sensory processing and cognitive functioning. The results of this study suggest that even during microsleep, some parts of your brain continue to function, which is why it’s easy to awaken from this state.
Microsleep happens without any warning, often at inopportune moments. As evidenced from the study above, the leading cause is sleep deprivation. But there are also a few other factors that may increase your risk of experiencing these short sleep episodes.
If you’ve wondered how long you can go without sleep, the answer is not too long. This is because your brain makes it virtually impossible to deprive yourself of sleep because of its ability to microsleep.
When you go a certain amount of time without sleep, parts of your brain shut down for a few seconds so that it can regain its ability to perform essential functions. This typically happens during instances of extreme sleep deprivation when you’re so tired that your brain just can’t ward off sleep for any longer.
Though your brain is essentially protecting you from some of the harmful consequences of sleep deprivation, its ability to microsleep is as dangerous as some of the side effects themselves.
Sleep apnea is a common condition where your breathing is restricted, causing you to periodically stop breathing during the night. Those who suffer from sleep apnea are more likely to have a disrupted sleep cycle because they may experience snoring, pauses in breathing, and choking or gasping.
Because the condition is uncontrollable and disturbs sleep throughout the night, people with sleep apnea endure higher levels of daytime sleepiness, making them more susceptible to episodes of microsleep.
Working night shifts is known to throw off your circadian rhythm, also known as the body’s internal clock. This happens because our sleep is dictated by the earth and sun’s 24-hour light/dark cycle, which is why we go to sleep when it’s dark outside and wake up when it’s light.
When you’re working a night shift, you’re forced to readjust your sleep schedule and go against your body’s circadian rhythm. Since your internal clock expects you to be alert during the day, many shift workers find it challenging to sleep soundly, even if they’re feeling extremely fatigued.
In severe cases, the consequences of shift work can contribute to a sleep disorder known as shift work sleep disorder. The main symptoms of this disorder are insomnia and increased sleepiness, which can put you at risk for experiencing microsleep episodes.
Research has shown that performing any kind of monotonous or repetitive task can put you at risk for experiencing microsleep. For example, if you’re taking a road trip and driving on an open stretch of road for an extended period of time, it’s best to stop at a rest area every so often or take turns driving if you’re traveling with someone else.
If you’re falling asleep on your couch during a Netflix marathon, microsleep can be completely harmless. But these short bursts of sleep can be dangerous if you’re driving or operating heavy machinery. Microsleep is especially common while driving. In fact, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that around 16.5% of fatal crashes in the U.S. are caused by drowsy drivers.
In addition to risks associated with driving, judgment, and information processing.
Since the main cause of microsleep is sleep deprivation, the best way to prevent it is by ensuring you’re getting sufficient rest. However, in addition to enforcing healthier sleep hygiene habits, it’s also important to be aware of the dangers of microsleep and practice caution. Here are some tips to stave off potential mishaps caused by microsleep:
Episodes of microsleep are a warning from your brain that you need to get more sleep. If you experience daytime sleepiness frequently even after regulating your sleep schedule, consider consulting a medical professional to identify the underlying cause.
Are you having microsleep? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Disclaimer. We love sleep and we want you to get the best sleep possible. But we do not provide medical advice. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical info, diagnosis, or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our blog.