Is Your Brain Asleep on the Job?

Sudden bouts of clumsiness or flakiness? A small part of your brain may be offline for a moment

Air traffic controllers aren’t the only ones drifting off on the job. At any given moment, pockets of your brain could be asleep at the wheel, according to a new study in the journal Nature.

When your brain cells (neurons) get tired, they doze off while you’re wide-awake, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Whole clusters of them can just go off the grid, like they’ve signed a napping pact or staged an impromptu sit-in. The entire power nap lasts for roughly 79 milliseconds (or 0.079 seconds). If only we could catch up on our rest so quickly.

The result: a blip of zombie-like behavior. You become clumsy, forgetful or unaware of what you’re doing. Maybe, like me, you put the coffee pot in the fridge and the carton of milk in your coffeemaker. But don’t worry -- this doesn’t happen all the time. It occurs when you’re feeling zonked or sleep-deprived. The more exhausted you are, the more often your neurons are likely to check out.

Until now, scientists believed that the brain was either awake or asleep. This study is the first to show that while the rest of your brain appears conscious, some portions of gray matter are sneaking in their Zzs. And, contrary to what you might expect, you, at this point, are not slumped over and drooling, but instead going about your business looking just as animated as someone with a fully-awake brain. The only difference is, your thoughts and actions are impaired just enough to make others think you’re acting a bit flaky, scatterbrained or clumsy. (Hmm, that kind of sounds like me all of the time.) The longer you go without sleep, the more impaired you become, until finally your body just gives in to the land of nod.  

A 2008 study in The Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep-deprived people go back and forth between normal brain function and what they called momentary “power failure.” This alternation in alertness can fool people into thinking they’re not as impaired as they actually are. 

Scientists for this study say that these momentary lapses should be viewed as a warning sign that you’re no longer in full control of your motor skills, and that it’s time to pull over, stop what you’re doing and catch some Zzs already -- because even if you think you can keep your eyes open, you have no control over which brain cells decide to call it a night. 


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