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9 ways sleep deprivation messes with your head


9 ways sleep deprivation messes with your head

Everyone has had a night where they have not got enough sleep. The consequences are painfully obvious. Your eyes feel grainy, your brain is slow, you are irritable and you lack energy. These are the obvious symptoms of sleep deprivation, but the reality is that it is much worse than it appears. These symptoms are just the tip of a very big iceberg and the longer and more serious the sleep deprivation the worse it gets. While sleep deprivation can be very bad for the body, it is equally bad if not worse for your mind. Here are 9 ways sleep deprivation messes with your head.

1. Sleepy brains have to work much harder for the same results, but are rarely able to match a well slept brain.

One of the big problems when you are sleep deprived is that your brain simply does not work as well and things that are easy when you are well slept are nearly impossible when you are sleep deprived and even the most simple task requires more energy. This is not just a sensation either, your brain literally requires more energy when you are tired.

To find out just how taxed the brain is when tired scientists have conducted brain imaging studies on sleep deprived people and have found that the energy levels of the prefrontal cortex, are far greater than in well rested people. When you are sleep deprived your brain requires more energy.

2. Your short term memory is... um, what are we talking about?

When you are sleep deprived trying to remember what happened a few minutes ago is far more difficult because sleep deprivation negatively impacts your working memory. Those recall tasks that are a breeze when you have slept well become far more problematic when you haven’t slept. Even trying to remember a phone number goes from relatively easy to very difficult.

In one extreme study a participant was asked to repeatedly subtract 7 from 100, he made it to 65 before explaining to the scientists that he had forgotten what he was doing. Other studies have found that people are unable to remember facts that they were told only a few minutes previously.

3. Your long term memory isn’t much better.

Sleep is crucial to the process of storing and, therefore, recalling memories. As we sleep the brain processes, orders and files your memories, mostly during the REM phase of sleep. In sleep deprived people, especially those missing the REM phase of sleep, long term memory becomes flawed. This means that not only are people unable to recall memories, but also that they will struggle with all aspects of life learning, including muscle memory, which are all tied up with this processing, ordering and filing task.

There have been a number of studies that have looked at long term memory and sleep. In one two groups, a study and control group, were given the same set of tasks and facts to learn, then tested the next day. The sleep deprived group scored an average of 30% less on both tests than the control group.

4. Attention is gone

When you are sleep deprived your attention span is also negatively impacted. This is quite an obvious impact and one that even those who’ve only missed a few hours one night will recognise. Usually humans display a powerful ability to focus on tasks, but sleep deprivation can drastically reduce this.

Studies have shown one of the causes of this is a drop in dopamine levels. When dopamine levels are high people are able to stay focused on a task but as they drop this attention ability drops drastically. Sleep deprivation causes a drop in dopamine, and thus a drop in attention span as well.

5. You cannot plan ahead

Another impact of sleep deprivation is that you struggle to plan. Usually we are more than capable of working out what we are going to do for the day and how we are going to go about it but sleep deprivation causes people to focus on the short term and lose focus on the long term.

There have been tests that have shown that this critical skill that allows us to work out when and how to start or stop tasks quickly goes awry with lack of sleep. People are unable to visualise how they are going to get from A to B when they are sleep deprived.

6. Your habits take over

As the sleep deprivation limits your cognitive capacity and your ability to plan ahead, people become a creature of habit. Our habits are like short cuts in life, which is fine when your habits are good but not so great when you have bad habits. People who are sleep deprived find it harder to suppress bad habits.

One study looked at how people control their junk food habit. Those who are well slept find it easier to abstain from junk food, while those who are sleep deprived struggled to resist. There is also a physiological connection here though, as sleep helps to control appetite and when we are sleep deprived we not only have a greater appetite but we also crave fatty and sugary foods.

7. More likely to take risks

While some people are natural risk takers and others are risk averse, sleep deprivation makes all of us more likely to take risks. Obviously this is related to the other cognitive impacts we suffer when we are unable sleep. When you have a slower brain, worse memory and a limited attention span, risks do not seem as bad.

In one study they used card games (something many of us have played late into the night) to see the impacts of sleep deprivation. They found that people who were sleep deprived were unable to see the long term risks of plays and were likely to take more risky moves.

8. Your emotions become more fragile

Sleep plays a role in regulating your emotions. The connections between sleep and depression are well known, but you do not have to be clinically depressed for sleep deprivation to negatively impact you.

Researchers have shown that people who are sleep deprived report feeling less friendly, elated, empathic, and have a generally lower positive mood. It can even affect how you feel about achievement, in one study, people who were more sleep deprived were less likely to feel good about achieving something positive than those who’d slept well.

9. Mania

One of the more serious consequences of sleep deprivation is mania. The longer some goes without enough sleep the more likely they are to suffer from mania, with symptoms such as psychosis, paranoia, high and extremely fluctuating energy levels, hallucinations, aggression and more.

In many of the more extreme sleep deprivation studies the participants have started to dream while awake, hallucinating fires, believing that the scientists conducting the study are lying about who they are and even doubting their own personality.


Sleep plays a vital role in your psychological well being and in your mental capacity in a range of different ways. Even a few minutes less than required can have an impact in both the short and long term. If you want to be at your best mentally then you need to make sure that you are sleeping well each and every night.

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