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Sleeplessness Gives You the Cognitive Abilities of a Drunk Person

You can get through the day—but expect to kind of suck.
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Sleeplessness makes you quite productive if you happen to be the brooding male lead in a major movie. Travis Bickle drives the graveyard shift because of chronic insomnia in Taxi Driver. Tony Stark builds a few dozen new Iron Man suits after PTSD throttles him into perpetual wakefulness in Iron Man 3. A corporate drone creates an army, an ideology, and an alternate personality during his restless nights in Fight Club.


But don't let Hollywood fool you: In real life, sleeplessness actually cripples brain power. In one study, the loss of a single night's rest had about the same effect as reaching the legal limit of drunkenness when researchers measured performance on cognitive tests. Insomnia impairs one's attention span and short-term memory, and these mental failings get worse the longer one goes without sleep. Sleeplessness even disrupts the ability to read emotions; subjects in a UC Berkley study who had gone 24 without sleep were more likely to see neutral or friendly facial expressions as threatening.

Anyone who has spent a night staring at a ceiling fan knows that foggy, pained, depleted feeling of seeing the sun rise up, like a victory flag planted by insomnia, does not spur one towards Iron Man's achievements in mechanical engineering or Tyler Durden's in social engineering.

The first time I missed an entire night's sleep, I was set to attend an event for my first-ever paid journalism assignment the next day. It was a ghost hunters' convention I was covering for a local newspaper. The pressure built all night: Fear I couldn't complete the assignment was compounded by my fear I couldn't complete it on four, then two, then zero hours sleep as I watched the digital clock.

At 7 am, I called my editor and left a message saying I hadn't slept and couldn't "medically" complete the story. His reply was surprisingly chill: "That's fine. Let us know if you have any other story ideas." I doubt he counted on an article about ghosts pitched by a 19-year-old before he got the draft. I spent the next day watching movies, feeling zombiefied.


In the years since, I have accepted on-again-off-again insomnia as a fact of life and force myself to complete the everyday tasks while red-eyed. I don't do my best work, but I keep my life moving until I can conk out at 8. At my last job, I told a coworker I couldn't meet him for drinks because I had been up for 36 hours straight (for no reason my mind clearly identified). "I'd be on the floor right now," he said. "Why didn't you call out?"

Since then, I've wondered just how bad it is to go without sleep for a night—how drastically you should alter your schedule. Generally, experts warn against driving, operating heavy machinery, and the other potentially life-threatening-or-limb-ripping activities mentioned at the tail ends of pharmaceutical ads. Most tasks of a white-collar worker can be done after missing a night of sleep, even though the results will be poorer.

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"Not sleeping for 24 hours is equivalent to feeling legally drunk," says Wei-Shin Lai, a physician in Pennsylvania who specializes in sleep disorders. Lai is also the CEO of ‎AcousticSheep, a line of headphones designed to help treat insomnia. "Many disasters occurred due to lack of sleep, such as Three-Mile Island," she says. "So I suggest staying away from driving or operating dangerous machines."

W. Christopher Winter, a Virginia-based sleep specialist and author of The Sleep Solution, says that, for the sleepless, activities can be divided between probably-shouldn'ts and absolutely-don'ts. "I think doing your taxes, studying, or attending a lecture should be avoided," he says, adding that anything that could put a life at risk —like driving, mountain climbing, or (apparently) working at the nuclear power plant, needs to be called off.


As for less dangerous daily tasks, you can give them a shot—but expect to kind of suck, and possibly act like a socially inept doofus. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep research, says you might also feel off when doing "activities where you will need quick reaction time." This includes giving presentations, dealing with conflict at work, or asking a person out on a date. If you can, put off that stuff.

Also, Breus notes that "mood changes are well documented with sleep deprivation. If you are anxious, it will be worse, and if you are depressed it will be worse. Basically everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep."

It's okay to use coffee to stay awake or nap for some relief, but do both in moderation. "Small doses of caffeine—like a small cup of coffee—drank intermittently throughout the night may help sustain alertness," says Shoshana Ungerleider, who says she often drinks caffeinated tea to get through night shifts at the Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

The National Sleep Foundation has only a few tacit warnings about caffeine and considers 500 or more milligrams of coffee (a generous six cups of eight ounces each) a day to be excessive.

Napping can reduce the fatigue, poor alertness and sour mood that comes with insomnia, but spending half the day on the couch will throw off your rhythm, making it harder to get to sleep the next night. Some experts recommend limiting naps to 15 to 20 minutes in the afternoon. Lai recommends light housekeeping, cleaning, and walking as a daytime itinerary for the sleepless.

The day after a sleepless night should be occupied with simple, non-taxing activities, with awareness towards hydration and health, says Nupur Kohli, a Dutch physician who specializes in stress and productivity. "Drink water to make yourself feel more awake and [utilize] bright light," he says. "Do be active to pass time, but not too much, and keep yourself engaged in light activities." The day should include a wind-down period of idleness and relaxation after dinner to help you sleep better the next night.

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