On October 7th, 2015 we learned about

Everything is emotional for a sleep-deprived brain

Most of us can point to anecdotal evidence about the effects of sleep deprivation. Most Americans don’t get enough sleep, but in my household, these examples are always directed at me (just look at when I publish each night…) Sadly, this even includes unpleasant symptoms of sleep deprivation, like irritability and shorter tempers. Researchers have started looking into what happens in your brain when you haven’t slept enough, shedding some light on what is known around here as “tired, grumpy Daddy.”

Distracting spoons

The study started with having test subjects track colored dots superimposed over different images. Some images were emotionally charged in one way or another, from kittens to mutilated bodies, while others were emotionally neutral, like a spoon. Rested people had more trouble tracking the dots over emotional images, as they seemed to be more distracting. Participants that had not slept in 24 hours were also tripped up by the neutral spoons, as their brain seemed to be emotionally distracted by every stimulus.

Unedited emotion

To find out more about what was happening on a neurological level, test subjects were then shown images of differing emotional intensity while in an fMRI. As before, sleep-deprived participants were distracted by all sorts of images. While this was happening, researchers could observe extra activity in the participants’ amygdalas. The amygdala seems to play a role in emotion and memory, normally activating only when presented with emotional stimuli. If they were activating even for spoons, then sleepy participants were likely experiencing emotion, and possibly disrupting memory formation, in nearly every interaction.

This increased activity could be because of sleep-deprivation disabling the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC. The ACC helps regulate our attention, motivation, as well as aid in planning and prediction. Without sleep, it seems that is may not be effectively regulating the amygdala, as normally synced activity from the two brain regions fell out of alignment.

All this comes together for a very unpleasant state of mind, where you can’t filter out the molehills, leaving every problem feeling like a mountain. With every possible problem feeling emotionally charged, the world will not only feel more frustrating and taxing to deal with, but you’ll likely burn through your self-control reservoir much faster than if you were well-rested, which can make your day that much harder. As much as I like to pretend coffee helps all this, the only known treatment for re-syncing your ACC and amygdala is sleep.

I should really hit “publish” soon…

Source: Why lack of sleep makes us emotionally distracted by everything by Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist

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