Sensory Distortion: Sleeplessness and the Confused Brain

look of confusion

I once stayed in a hotel/art installation called the Propeller City Island Lodge in Berlin. Its whole purpose is to experiment with sensory distortion—to use furniture and space to confuse, befuddle and delight with floating beds, strange mirrors, and optical tricks to create a warped sense of space. The way I felt in those spaces was strangely akin to the way I feel after an all-nighter: disoriented, amused, slightly afraid, and more than slightly uncomfortable.

Once, David Bowie, determined to abstain from taking the drugs that had been fueling his hallucinations for years, decided to try sleep deprivation. “My whole life would be transformed into this bizarre nihilistic fantasy world of oncoming doom, mythological characters and imminent totalitarianism.” It turns out, staying awake for days on end can create a natural ethereal state of drug-like strangeness, but that doesn’t mean I recommend it. We’ve all experienced this effect, at least in small doses. After a single sleepless night, I feel unreal, like I’m floating disconnected from my physical body. I’m emotionally volatile, easily perturbed and startled, and perpetually irritated. So what’s going on in my brain? It’s frightening that it takes so little—just a night of restlessness—to disrupt our iron grip on reality: frightening and extremely common.

Recent imaging studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging technologies (fmri) have begun to tell the story of the brain on inadequate sleep. Researchers monitored the brains of ten students who had been deprived of sleep for 25 hours. The volunteers were sober—no alcohol, drugs, caffeine or nicotine—and were tasked with performing a simple task repeatedly throughout a 24-hour period.

human brain

The results were fascinating. Activity in the left thalamus increases with sleep deprivation, while activity in the inferior parietal decreases. The inferior parietal is responsible for integrating information from the senses. The left thalamus is also associated with sensory information: it is responsible for relaying sensory information and motor signals. So, if your parietal can’t effectively integrate all of the complex sensory information filtering through it at an accelerated rate from the over stimulated thalamus, it makes sense that you might feel strange, disconnected, and confused.

It also happens that the thalamus is responsible for regulating consciousness, sleep, and alertness. In an overtired mind, the thalamus may be trying its hardest to induce sleep while simultaneously trying to keep you alert… I’d love to see more studies on the thalamus’ double duty in sleep deprivation. Are those signals crossing and, if so, what’s happening? In the meantime, unless you’re going for some artistic inspiration a la David Bowie, give your thalamus a break and get a good night’s sleep on a comfortable mattress. Your brain will thank you for it.

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