Science Questions

Why do I fall asleep in lectures?

Thu, 18th Jul 2013

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Question

Joel asked:

Why am I not able to stay awake during lectures at university? Lectures I find riveting and most of the time, there's not much else I'd rather be doing than listening to my professors talk about receptor theory or neurophysiology. The same as when I'm driving at night, my eyelids droop and I fall into microsleeps before just putting my head down on the bench and sleeping (not while driving!).

It's not so much sleep deprivation either; I get enough each night (unless there's an assignment due in the morning).

Lots of people I've spoken to have the same experiences - long, inactive periods leave them unable to stay awake. Why? Hey guys, love the show - it's amazing.

Thanks so much! Keep it up!

Joel

 

Answer

sleeping commuter

Hannah - Well Joel, I think part of the reason is that lecture theatres generally seem to be quite dark. So we know that blue light actually stimulates your brain and your body to wake up. It does this by affecting this little region in your brain thatís called a suprachiasmatic nuclei. Itís this little region thatís about the size of a pinhead and if you kind of Ė I donít suggest you do this at home Ė but if you put a pencil up your nose, basically, you'd get to the suprachiasmatic nuclei. There's about 20,000 nerve cells there and they're the kind of master body clock in your body and your brain. It regulates your sleep wake cycle. Blue light affects these suprachiasmatic nuclei to wake you up. In dark lecture theatres, there's not much blue light going. So maybe you could bring in a blue wavelength rich light. There's also other little tricks to keep yourself awake. So, giving your self extra stimulation another way. So for example, if you're driving in a car, maybe turn the radio on, maybe listen to the Naked Scientists to get some extra stimulation so that your brain is kind of awake and thinking, and maybe open the window to get some air rushing in and to stimulate your somato sensory cortex with the breeze.

 

Chris - So basically, what you're saying is that a room which is Ė regardless of what's being presented, warm, quiet, dark, they're all sorts of feature similar to your bedroom probably and so, it does lull you into a fairly snoozey state.

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If these are sudden "sleep attacks" which occur without warning then narcolepsy is a possibility ... http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Narcolepsy/Pages/Introduction.aspx RD, Thu, 18th Jul 2013

I guess it's your body telling you that you need more rest. You may think you're getting enough sleep each night, but perhaps not? JSparkle, Thu, 8th Aug 2013

It's because there's a hidden magical sleep powder in the voice of the lecturer :P that seems legit to me! AnthonyDove619, Wed, 14th Aug 2013

I think the short term memory gets full of new information and needs to dump from time to time. On a long drive I stop every 2 hours for a 10 minute nap. With a bit of practice the brain seems to recover and switch back on after 10 minutes with no prompting, and I can press on for 10 - 12 hours using deliberate catnaps. There are also diurnal lows - most people feel dozy around 2 - 4 pm and a "power nap" can restore performance.

But if anyone sleeps during my lectures, I revise the lecture. alancalverd, Thu, 15th Aug 2013

Dimming the lights in lectures for the use of presentation aids can be particularly troublesome.  Perhaps in the future, the use of bright media such as LED and Plasma screens will help.  Of course, there is also rambling and monotony.

I had been addicted to coffee earlier, but it would never seem to keep me awake, but rather give spikes in alertness followed by lows, as well as disrupting sleep patterns.

As far as driving, BE CAREFUL.  If you need to stop, then by all means find a place to pull over and take a brief nap, even if it is merely at an offramp.  Some people like listening to books on tape during long drives. CliffordK, Wed, 4th Sep 2013

1) Not getting enough sleep the night before.
2) Sitting in one position too long - over activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
3) Nothing in the content of the lecture strikes you as odd, unexpected, surprising. The brain responds to novelty, even if its kind of stupid novelty that won't advance your station in life. cheryl j, Thu, 5th Sep 2013

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