Once upon a time, I went to a Pharmacy to get some medication for myself. It is not unusual for Doctors like me to get them self-prescribed. So there I was in this newly opened pharmacy with the smell of fresh furniture and there I was seeking the analgesics that I needed.
Suddenly, a manly voice said, “Hey, can I help you ?”. I turned around just to notice this 6 feet tall well-groomed man smiling at me. His big brown eyes twinkled behind his thick-framed glasses. As we were talking, I realised how many things we had in common. He told me that he was working while waiting to get posted (a term that we Doctors in Malaysia use while we are placed in our respective state/work stations in the Ministry of Health).
Years went by and we had our ups and downs as we would in a healthy relationship. Soon after, we got busy with our work and the communication reduced. One day as I was scrolling through Facebook, I decided to just look at his profile. It was somewhere near his birthday and I wanted to wish him only to stumble upon his obituary greetings on the screen. It shocked me that this talented person was a victim of a motor vehicle accident due to micro-sleeping.
Microsleep is a term used to describe brief, unintended episodes of loss of attention associated with events of drowsiness or sleep. These episodes can occur in various situations, such as when a person is driving, studying, or even during a conversation. Microsleep periods can last from a fraction of a second up to 30 seconds, often without the individual realizing that they have experienced a lapse in consciousness.
The science behind microsleep
Microsleep events are thought to be symptomatic of a sleep-deprived brain attempting to transition into a sleep state, even when the individual is making an effort to stay awake. These periods are characterized by theta wave brain activity, similar to that observed during sleep onset.
The exact cause of microsleep is not definitively known, but it is generally associated with factors such as sleep deprivation, fatigue, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, medications, and prolonged mental tasks. The body’s circadian rhythm, which dictates periods of wakefulness and sleep, can also play a role, with microsleeps more likely to occur during the body’s natural “down times” in the very early morning and mid-afternoon.
The risks of microsleep
Understandably, microsleep can pose significant risks. During these brief episodes, people can miss crucial information or cues in their environment. This can be especially dangerous in situations like driving or operating machinery, where a momentary lapse in attention can lead to accidents, injury, or even death.
Microsleep episodes are often unnoticed by the individual experiencing them, which can make the condition particularly insidious. Some people may realize they've experienced a microsleep event if they suddenly find themselves in a different place on a page while reading, miss part of a conversation, or notice a momentary lapse in a task they were performing.
Detection and prevention
Detecting microsleep can be challenging due to its fleeting nature and the fact that those experiencing it often remain partially or fully unaware of these episodes. However, certain signs can indicate the occurrence of microsleep, like head nodding, prolonged blink duration, or sudden body jerks.
Prevention of microsleep largely involves addressing underlying issues, such as sleep deprivation. Prioritizing sufficient, good-quality sleep and maintaining a regular sleep schedule can help reduce the likelihood of experiencing microsleep. For those with sleep disorders, seeking appropriate medical treatment is crucial.
Moreover, taking regular breaks during long tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention, such as long-distance driving or studying, can help. During these breaks, quick naps, physical activity, or a change in environment can help refresh and reset the mind.
Microsleep is a fascinating phenomenon that demonstrates how the brain can transition into a sleep state, even when the individual is trying to stay awake. However, it poses significant risks, especially when it occurs during activities requiring constant attention. Recognizing the signs of microsleep and taking preventative measures, primarily ensuring adequate sleep, can help prevent these dangerous instances of involuntary brain shut down.