What Does Your Brain Do When You're Sleepy? According To Research, It's A Lot More Active Than You Feel
You know the physical signs of being exhausted, but have you ever wondered what your brain does when you're sleepy? No? Clearly you need to watch more Bill Nye the Science Guy . Luckily, however, researchers in Singapore are more curious about the world than you or I, and they've recently conducted a small study that answers that very question.
Strengthening my belief that scientists are all sadists deep down, researchers made 18 volunteers nice and sleepy by forcing them to stay awake for 22 hours straight. According to NY Mag's Science of Us, they then laid inside a dark fMRI scanner and, perhaps most cruelly, were asked not to close their eyes during two six-minute scans. When the participants inevitably failed to keep their eyes open, they were startled back into wakefulness with a recorded message reminding them of their puny human failure.
OK, fine, it just reminded them to keep their eyes open, but I'm sure the implication was there.
Despite the instructions to the participants, these instances of "micro-sleep' were actually vital to the study. Researchers also performed fMRI scans on the same participants when they were well-rested, in order to compare data from the two scenarios later.
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Unsurprisingly, researchers found a reduction in activity in the thalamus, an area of the brain which receives sensory input from the rest of the body and directs it appropriately. According to Science of Us, researchers interpreted this as a way of shutting down the brain's connection with the outside world, a finding which has been supported by other research in the past. However, the study also found that areas in the front and sides of the brain also activated when participants' eyes closed, which did not occur when participants were well-rested. All the activity seems counterintuitive at first, but researchers hypothesized that it was a result of the participants' (failed) struggles to stay awake.
Admittedly, the findings won't exactly be helpful if you're having a hard time sleeping tonight, but at least you know exactly what you're brain is doing when you keep nodding off during your absurdly boring History of Theater class. Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything, but if I were, my advice would be this: put down Orange Is the New Black and go to sleep.
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