The Neuroscience Of How Sleep Deprivation Can Kill You

If you don’t get enough sleep, research suggests that you’ll be worse at dealing with information, more likely to cheat people, and unable to clean up your brain.

The Neuroscience Of How Sleep Deprivation Can Kill You
[Image: Flickr user Woodleywonderworks]

What’s the thread running between Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, and New York’s recent Metro North train derailment? Sleep deprivation.


What’s bad news for us is that nearly half of Americans are sleep deprived–meaning they can pay less attention, make worse decisions, and are less trustworthy than well-rested versions of themselves.

Why being perpetually underslept wrecks you (and your car, too)

The reason multitasking sucks is because it fries our ability to filter out irrelevant information. Being perpetually underslept similarly sucks because it too reduces out ability to filter out the irrelevant stimuli, as Michael Chee, a sleep researcher at Duke-National University of Singapore, explained to us.

In one of his labs experiments, he asked subjects to take part in a dumb task: hitting a button when a light flashes. But, as he explains, if you’re underslept, your vigilance drops and you will start to miss responses–even for something as simple as hitting a button.

“The danger of this is when doing something like driving, where you tune out at possibly the wrong time. It also relates to people who have to monitor for information: if information is coming from off screen, you might miss it because your brain tuned out–and tune outs are far more frequent (when you’re sleep deprived),” he says. “If you are driving down the road, you want to focus on what is directly ahead of you, but if a child comes by the side of the road, you do not want to miss that.”

But if you’re sleep-deprived, you might.


How much we really need

Research suggests we need 8.1 hours of sleep a night. Americans get six hours a night on average, though we spend 7.5 in bed.

So how much do you need? While Chee’s lab uses folks with less than six hours of sleep as their threshold for being sleep deprived, he tells us that you should take an experimental approach to your sleep hygiene: test how many hours of sleep at which lengths of time work for you–then stick to that.

Not just quantity of sleep, but quality of sleep

Sleep has four phases: three are dreamless and get deeper and deeper. The fourth, called rapid eye movement, or REM, is the phase where you dream. How important is REM? We don’t know for certain, but the brain uses as much oxygen while you’re in REM as when you’re awake.

This is why sleep aficionados say that you need to have the longest uninterrupted sleep as possible: because if you hit the snooze button and doze off again, you don’t get back into the crucial REM stage right away. Meaning that you’re time spent dozing won’t be nearly as beneficial as if you were properly sleeping.

Can you make up for lack of sleep?

It gets complicated. Some research suggests that sleep debt–the idea of “catching up” on sleep over the weekend–doesn’t really work. But Russell Foster, an Oxford neuroscientist, says that addressing sleep debt is a part of balancing homeostatic drive.


“If you disturb a fish or a fruit fly or whatever during their rest period, it will need more sleep the following night,” Foster tells the Telegraph. “And if it doesn’t get it, the organism will seek more of it. Like starving something of food.”

And don’t trust your sleepy colleague

He’ll be more likely to cheat you.

Hat tip: the Telegraph

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.