Published on 15 March 2019


Published on 15 March 2019

Nodding off during a lecture or while riding on public transit is a common experience. Though many think nothing of dozing for a few moments like previously mentioned, these types of incidents may indicate one of the most common and dangerous consequences of sleep deprivation: microsleep.

A microsleep is a brief period of light sleep that happens suddenly and without intention. This form of sleep occurs when the brain shifts unexpectedly between the wake and sleep states, and parts of the brain shut down. A microsleep typically results from lack of sleep, sleep disorders, or taking medications with sedating side effects. Microsleep is most likely to occur during times when the circadian rhythm dictates the body should be asleep, such as at dawn, late at night, or in the mid-afternoon.

A microsleep can last from a fraction of a second up to about fifteen seconds. These episodes are characterized by a momentary lack of response to external sensory stimuli, changes in brain wave activity, and behavioral symptoms such as head-nodding and closing of the eyelids. A person who experiences the feeling of “jerking awake” without intending to fall asleep may have just slipped in and out of microsleep. Because microsleep episodes are unintentional, they may happen at inconvenient or unexpected times. They become dangerous when they occur while driving or working in environments where remaining alert is crucial to safety.

An occurrence of microsleep may be detected through visible behavioral indicators or by electroencephalography (EEG). On an EEG, microsleep is defined as the moment when theta wave activity momentarily replaces alpha wave activity as the background rhythm of the brain. An EEG taken during microsleep will display a quick, short-term shift from activity in the usual wakeful areas of the brain to those commonly associated with light sleep.

Sleep deprivation can negatively impact important functions in our body. However,  the habit of postponing sleep is incredibly common that there seems to be a glamorization of exhausting one’s self to work. As is the habit of falling for instant gratification, to not utilize the time we have as well as we could. To assume the time of sleep as easily replaceable, an instant answer to the problem of time (or lack thereof). There are better ways of managing time without easily taking the option of sacrificing sleep. The potential danger of working or driving with sleep deprivation is not one to bargain.

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Yaqub Jonmohamadi, Microsleeps are Associated with Stage-2 Sleep Spindles from Hippocampal-Temporal Network, International Journal of Neural Systems, Mar. 2016

Barbara E. Jones, Basic Mechanisms of Sleep-Wake States, Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine, December 2005