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What is microsleep and why is it dangerous?

Have you ever “zoned out” while driving down a Georgia street, road or highway? Have you ever realized with a jolt that you have no memory of driving the last few blocks or even miles? If so, you likely suffered a bout of microsleep.

According to a new report in The Crux, microsleep is a weird state of consciousness in which parts of your brain, for short, but recurring periods, are awake and parts are asleep at the same time. Usually you are sitting down when this happens and your eyes are wide open. You look like you are fully awake, but you really are not. And you don’t usually realize you are microsleeping until after you wake up, often with a jolt.

Possible causes

Researchers have no real idea why microsleep occurs, although they think that if you are overly fatigued, such as from tossing and turning all night instead of sleeping soundly, this primes your brain for microsleep. But on the other hand, fully rested people also succumb to microsleep. For instance, in a 2012 study of people who were told to play a reasonably boring computer boring game for 50 minutes after getting a good night’s sleep, the average player microslept 79 times during the test, each time for about six seconds.

A 2015 study monitored people’s brain activity inside a dark fMRI machine. When they fell into microsleep, their respective thalamuses, the part of the brain that regulates a person’s sleep-wake cycle, became less active. But other parts of their brains became more active, leading researchers to believe that our brains sometimes try to prevent us from fully falling asleep, letting us do things on autopilot instead.

Disastrous results

As you might expect, if you microsleep while doing something important, like driving, the results could be catastrophic. Several high-profile disasters have been attributed to microsleep over the years, including the following:

  • The 2016 London train derailment that killed seven people and injured 62 others
  • The 2009 AirFrance Flight 447 crash that killed all 228 people on board
  • The 2003 Waterfall train disaster
  • The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident

The best that researchers can do is recommend that if you feel like you need to take a nap, you should take one before doing anything as potentially hazardous as driving your car.

This is general educational information and not intended to provide legal advice.

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