You’ve probably heard people brag about being able to sleep with their eyes open, but have you ever heard of sleeping while you’re awake? We aren’t pulling your leg, it’s a real phenomenon and the craziest part is, you’ve probably done it.
We’ve all been there. Around 3 pm as your lunch is settling and the room starts to feel a little warmer, your eyes start to lose focus in the middle of your train of thought… then snap. Your head jerks upward as your eyes open wide and you ask yourself how long you were out. The truth is, microsleep is more dangerous than getting caught napping on the job.
Whether it’s due to an after-lunch slump or an especially dry meeting, these lapses in our attention are called microsleep, and research shows they effectively disengage the brain from waking thought, putting ourselves and others at risk.
US & World Report News reports that this is because microsleeps are genuine episodes of sleep that would show up on an EEG. While not deep, these periods of unconsciousness are an involuntary reaction to a lack of rest.
Microsleeps typically last between three to five seconds, and as they’re so quick in duration, sometimes you may not even be aware they are happening. In some cases, a person could be driving, talking, or even making eye contact with another person just before these microsleeps.
“This little subgroup of cells essentially turns out the lights in the brain and lets it go to sleep. It’s like turning a master switch–a slumber switch.” – Dr. Cliff Saper 
When we fight our brains on this, we go through periods of sleep and wakefulness that only last a few seconds each, flipping back and forth between consciousness. A study conducted by the Emory University School of Medicine suggests that this phenomenon significantly interferes with cognitive performance, mood, and motor function.
Microsleeps are sometimes classified local sleep, as evaluated in a research study by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The research showed that it’s possible to be sleeping while awake. This is possible because while a part of your brain may be sleeping, the rest can still be awake and fully functioning at the same time.
Additionally, BBC reports that sleep needs to last longer than one to two minutes for our brains to recall it, according to a sleepy driving expert. This means we could be experiencing microsleep without even noticing. They happen suddenly, and just as people use falling asleep as a metaphor for things that happen easily without any warning, microsleeps can sneak up on you.
While microsleeps last a few seconds at the most, micro naps last a few minutes. Micro naps are voluntary short power naps that could potentially help a sleep-deprived person overcome nausea, and gain a bit of an edge on their sleepiness. Microsleep is an involuntary reaction in a sleep-deprived brain where the body leans toward sleep homeostasis so heavily that neurons stop firing as the brain takes control for a few seconds, putting lives at risk.
If you’re like most of us, around this point you may be frantically asking yourself what happens if I experience microsleep? Or has it happened already? While the answers might not be comforting, it’s important to understand the risks.
Microsleeps are involuntary and a result of the brain effectively revoking awake privileges for those of us who can’t seem to get enough sleep at night. When these instances occur on the road or while operating machinery, the risk for mistakes is amplified along with the seriousness of the consequences. Three seconds at sixty miles per hour is long enough to travel three hundred feet in the wrong direction, whether that’s into a ditch, off a cliff, or into a pedestrian.
There are more risks than just motor vehicle operation, however. These microsleeps can happen at work while editing spreadsheets, entering important data, or handling sensitive information.
While we fight our brain’s attempts to sleep, we tend to make more mistakes, according to a study performed on rats. In the study, the rats experiencing periods of microsleep were much less successful at tasks that required them to reach sugar pellets than rats who were fully awake. Applied to humans, microsleep seems to complicate even the normally simple daily tasks.
A study performed at the New Zealand Brain Research Institute shows that microsleeps include a complete failure to respond to external stimuli during the sleep episode, meaning for those working in a kitchen, sharp knives, hot stovetops, and slippery floors are all hazards.
The Harvard Business Review reported that microsleeps are caused by the brain leaning toward sleep homeostasis as triggered by the circadian rhythm. This generally happens when subjects are sleep deprived and cannot stave off sleep any longer.
Sleep deprivation is the biggest contributing factor to microsleep, meaning those who are often kept up through the night due to insomnia, or other medical conditions that restrict sleep are at a higher than normal risk for the dangerous phenomenon.
Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing is restricted during sleep either due to breathing obstruction or other factors that cause a sleeping person to periodically stop breathing. This condition is serious and keeps the brain from getting enough oxygen during sleep, meaning those with sleep apnea may experience a higher than average level of daytime sleepiness.
What does a truck driver, a doctor, and a new parent all have in common? Working the night shift. No matter what your profession, many of us have to do it at some point in our lives, and it’s important to recognize that it can put you at a higher risk for microsleeps.
Working through the night throws off your body’s internal clock. Triggered by sunlight, temperature, and a variety of other factors, your body is optimized to stay awake during the day and sleep at night. When this rhythm is changed, your body may experience microsleeps even if you slept a normal amount during the day.
Shift Work Disorder is a condition that increases sleepiness, insomnia, and microsleeps in workers who frequently change shifts, making it difficult for the body to accurately keep time and facilitate sleep.
Performing monotonous tasks for long amounts of time has been shown by research to be conducive to microsleeps, meaning driving alone for extended periods without anything to keep you awake may not be the best idea.
This is a surefire sign that your effectiveness is decreasing, and it’s time to quit while you’re ahead. While we still don’t know exactly why yawning is so contagious, we do know it’s strongly associated with sleep or boredom. Dr. Anthony Komaroff of Harvard Medical School says this is likely because yawning is an indication of shallow breathing, something that accompanies sleep preparation, or relaxation.
Called the Hypnic Jerk, sudden jolts that yank you out of the falling asleep stage are common and indicate your brain has been and will continue trying to fall asleep. We don’t know exactly what causes them, but if they’re happening while you need to be awake, it’s important to call it quits and turn off the lights.
According to a study conducted at the Clinic Charité-University Medicine in Berlin, rapid eye blinking is a reliable indicator in daytime sleepiness. If you find you’re blinking more frequently and quickly as a means to focus on your tasks, it’s a good time to put a pin in the task at hand and take time for a nap.
The good news is that micro sleeping is completely avoidable, and with a few good habits, you can avoid the risk of harm or injury.
If you know you’re going to be driving significantly more than usual, especially late at night, it’s important to make sure you get plenty of sleep in the week before the trip. If you’ve stayed up all week long but gotten eight hours the night before, you may want to reschedule, as sleep debt is a major factor in causing microsleeps.
If you find you have been experiencing one or more of the aforementioned risk indicators, you can pull over to take a short nap and recharge for a while. If you have another passenger in the car who is more awake, taking turns napping and driving can be effective in preventing microsleep. If you want to be extra cautious, the National Safety Council recommends limiting the amount of time driven at night due to the volume of accidents, especially for older drivers.
If you find yourself feeling extra tired after a heavy lunch, getting up for a brisk walk can help boost your body’s wakefulness. According to a study conducted at the University of Georgia, walking up a flight of stairs can be more energizing than caffeine for young women.
According to a study conducted by Leigh M Riby, upbeat music is great for stimulating the brain and can boost alertness, attention, and even memory. The study was done on Vivaldi’s four seasons, so if you’re feeling a little weary, telling Siri to play Vivaldi’s “Spring” may not be a bad idea.
MedicineNet reports that engaging a coworker or other car passenger to have a conversation with you can help keep you awake, according to Dr. Barry Krakow of Maimonides Sleep Arts & Sciences. He advises that topics such as religion and politics may be stimulating enough to stave off the sleepiness.