If you are waking up tired, feeling like you could nod off during the day and rarely getting between 7 and 9 hours of good sleep you are to a greater or lesser extent, sleep deprived. If allowed to continue a sleep debt builds up and our brain seeks ways to restore balance. One such remedy is the microsleep.
These lapses in brain function can be as innocuous as those times when you can’t remember where you placed your keys just a minute ago. Or as catastrophic as waking up behind the wheel, milliseconds before a head-on collision. Lasting for as little as a fraction of a second we might not be aware that we have drifted off. If not kept in check the frequency increases and the duration can extend to as much as 2 minutes, leading to full sleep.
Microsleeps are different to the sleep we experience in bed, in so much as we can be awake while our brain is sneaking in a microsleep, similar to daydreaming. Studies on rats suggest that part of the brain shuts down whilst other parts remain awake. We are most susceptible to microsleeps during monotonous activities, with pre-dawn and mid-afternoon being the most likely times of the day.
Drivers are especially at risk with most regular drivers admitting that they’ve experienced drowsiness, loss of concentration and in some instances full sleep whilst behind the wheel. In the US over 100,000 car crashes per year are blamed on fatigue.
When you next feel drowsy whilst driving or operating machinery take a nap. It is better to be a few minutes late than to spend a lifetime in regret.