Do you remember the part in The Princess Bride when Miracle Max pronounces Westley to be “only mostly dead,” instead of entirely dead? “Mostly dead,” he continues, “means slightly alive.” It’s a little unexpected , because we usually think of “dead” and “alive” as mutually exclusive.
But just as Westley can be “slightly alive” even when he seems dead, new research suggests that the brain can be “slightly asleep” even when you are awake. Scientists found that in sleep-deprived rats who act perfectly awake, small subsets of neurons go into a sleep mode. This begins to happen even with minor sleep deprivation, and the number of sleeping neurons increases as the sleep deprivation worsens. As a result, the rats start to perform tasks less accurately and efficiently. They make more mistakes because they don’t have their full neuronal team on the playing field–some are napping on the bench.
Given what researchers know about the similarity between rat sleep and human sleep, it’s fairly likely that a similar thing happens in people who haven’t gotten enough sleep. That may explain some of the cognitive lapses associated with sleep loss that researchers have reported over the past several years, and that we outlined in a prior blog post titled “On Sleep: Why You Need It So Badly and How You Can Get Some!”