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Election 2008

A Sleep Deprived Election Season

Desiree Cooper

Angela Kim

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Sleeping Rally
(STAN HONDA/Getty Images)
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Desiree Cooper: You know, the candidates this weekend are trying to figure out how best to cover two dozen states. Can you talk to me a little about what the state of their minds must be like right now?

Matt Walker: Well, if they're going under the condition of sleep deprivation, which I suspect-many of them are, there are a number of unfortunate things that seem to happen to the brain that we happen to know of.

Firstly, the part of the brain that controls our logical, rational reasoning, which is a region called the frontal lobe, actually seems to be very sensitive to not getting sleep. And that region actually seems to shut down and become inhibited by the lack of sleep. So, our ability to think logically is deteriorating the longer that we stay awake.

Conversely, what also seems to happen is that we've recently discovered is that the deep, emotional brain centers actually start to ramp up and perhaps become emotionally over-active without sleep. What we find is that your emotional rationality starts to become impaired and that you become increasingly irrational in your emotional behavior. And your logical reasoning centers in your frontal lobe, which should normally take care and control that type of situation, unfortunately are not online anymore and can't help out and police the emotional brain.

Well Matt, this weekend, people are going to be thinking about catching up on their sleep, so what's your advice to them?

When it comes to question of sleep and memory, what we've found is that unfortunately, you can't pay back sleep in the way that you think about it. So, in other words, sleep is not like the bank. You cannot sort of accumulate a debt across several days and then hope to pay it off at some later point in time by binging on sleep and recovering. Instead, it seems to be that after you've learned some new information, you have to sleep the first night after learning. And so if you pull the all-nighter after learning new information and then you try and get all of the recovery sleep that you want on the second night, on the third night, when you test people for their memory several days later, that memory has not been retained anywhere near as well.

So, unfortunately it seems that if you don't sleep within the first 24 hours after learning, you lose the chance for sleep to grab a hold of that new information and solidify it into the neural architecture of the brain.

Matt, if we're processing information most of the day, and even well into the night, how are we processing information as we're sleeping?

One of the potential functions of sleep is to start to build connections and associations between newly learned pieces of information. It's almost like a group therapy session. You can imagine all of the new pieces of information that have been placed within the brain during that day and at night, sort of all gather round and start to try and introduce themselves to each other and figure out how they're related to each other. And by doing that, what you build are not only obvious connections between information but perhaps novel connections between information.

It turns out that colliding new pieces of information together in strange and odd ways is the basis of creativity. That's what we think about as a creative step of evolution, two things going together that should normally not go together-but the result is profoundly beneficial. You go to bed with the pieces of the puzzle and you wake up with a jigsaw complete. That's what we think sleep may be doing.

  • Music Bridge:
    Fire Made of Bones
    Artist: Tape
    CD: Opera (Hapna)
More stories from our Election 2008 series

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