The Neuroscience of Sleep: Great Leaders Know its Value

Posted on August 7, 2013. Filed under: Attention Matters, Our Leaders Say, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at the neuroscience of sleep and how even a quick siesta after lunch can build neurocapability, enhance productivity, and bring joy to the world.


Dreamscape: Lauren Hildreth

Dreamscape by L Hildreth

Why do we sleep?

It’s something we spend a third of our lives doing. For those of us in the Western world, it can amount to more than twenty-five or thirty years over a lifetime. Yet scientists are still unclear as to why we must sleep and how much is optimal to engage in productive, satisfying activities when we are awake. There have been different theories over the last decades, but with the new understanding of the brain brought about by the field of neuroscience, we might finally get some answers.

According to Oxford professor Russell Foster, a researcher with the Centre for Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience at Brasenose College, we sleep for:

    1. restoration—to replenish and repair metabolic processes
    2. energy conservation
    3. for brain processing and memory consolidation

The last reason is the explanation that deeply interests Foster. Other research on sleep supports Foster’s view and goes beyond it to show many different reasons sleep is important in the business and organisational context.

For safety

tumblr_lksdinlltU1qaiveqo1_500A recent poll taken by the US National Sleep Foundation illustrates the extent of the problem. Twenty percent of American adults reported being so sleepy during the day that it interferes with their daily activities at least a few days per week, and a frightening 17% reported falling asleep while driving within the last year. According to an editorial in Nature, the risk of sleep-related accidents is compounded by the fact that people are unable to judge the likelihood that they will fall asleep, and by the misconception that falling asleep is a slow process, stating that:

…sleep-deprived people commonly enter so-called ‘microsleep’ states, where they fall asleep for brief episodes lasting several seconds, during which time they are perceptually ‘blind’, often unaware that they have even fallen asleep.

Microsleep states can result in a variety of errors and miscalculations. There’s the amusing story of the tired German bank employee, who was supposed to transfer just 62.40 euros from a bank account belonging to a retiree, but instead “fell asleep for an instant while pushing the number 2 key on the keyboard”—making it a huge 222,222,222.22 euro ($293 million) order.

But a similar situation could result in disastrous and tragic consequences. Christopher Barnes, a researcher at the University of Washington and an expert on sleep as it relates to the workplace, cites several high profile incidents as examples of how a lack of sleep can create unsafe work environments:

In the US Air Force, Class A Mishaps are accidents involving permanent disability, fatality, or property damage of $2 million or more. A 2003 study conducted by Luna indicates that fatigue played a role in 8 percent of all such incidents. Nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Davis-Besse, and Rancho Seco all occurred in the early morning (2:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.), a time of day that naturally produces sleepy employees.

Studies in Japan, Finland, Canada, and the U.S. confirm this, finding that regardless of training, equipment, or procedures, if employees work while short on sleep, their odds of making dangerous mistakes will increase. This means that if we want safe workplaces, we all need to get more sleep.

For memory

Studies show that if you prevent people from sleeping after a learning task, their ability to retain that new knowledge or ability is essentially non-existent. Even worse, the ability to come up with novel solutions after a complex task are reduced after sleep deprivation.

The U.S. National Institute of Health has funded research to study this complex relationship between sleep and memory.  “We’ve learned that sleep before learning helps prepare your brain for initial formation of memories,” says Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “And then, sleep after learning is essential to help save and cement that new information into the architecture of the brain, meaning that you’re less likely to forget it.”

Sleep expert Dr. Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School agrees:

When you doze off, sleep seems to be a privileged time when the brain goes back through recent memories and decides both what to keep and what not to keep. During a night of sleep, some memories are strengthened.

His research has also shown that memories of certain procedures, like playing a melody on a piano, can actually improve while you sleep.

This new understanding about sleep also means that a likely consequence of sleep deprivation is memory impairment. For example, it has been shown that a particular type of memory consolidation—improvement after practicing a visual discrimination task—does not occur until many hours after practice has ended. Using cleverly designed sleep deprivation experiments, studies demonstrate an absolute requirement for sleep within 30 hours of training. Importantly, it was the occurrence of sleep and not the simple passage of time that was critical.

For judgment

Dr. C. Nathan DeWall, of the University of Kentucky, has lectured and written on self-control and self-regulation depletion.  He has documented how metabolic depletion (lack of energy) and sleep deprivation limits one’s self-control.  “The act of using self-control draws upon this fuel, which exhausts the fuel. Thus, one’s ability to exert self-control can become depleted,” he says.

His findings have been confirmed by Christopher Barnes who, in a recent article for the HBR Blog Network, points out that:

The workplace has many temptations that employees must resist, from the petty impulse to claim credit for someone else’s work to the unscrupulous lapse of lying in a negotiation context, to the criminal act of misrepresenting financial numbers. Recent research indicates that self-control is a key determinant of whether or not people fall to or resist such temptations. When their ability to exert self-control is high, they can resist.

According to Barnes, sleep deprivation drains glucose in the prefrontal cortex, which means that a lack of sleep robs the fuel for self-control from the region of the brain responsible for self-control. On the other hand, sleep restores glucose. Building from this research, Barnes and his colleagues investigated the effects of sleep on unethical behavior. Across a set of four studies in both laboratory and field contexts, they found that a lack of sleep led to high levels of unethical behavior. Significantly, they found that this was due to sleep deprivation leading to a lack of self-control, which in turn led to unethical behaviour.

Executives and managers should keep in mind that the more they push employees to work late, come in early, and be available to answer emails and calls at all hours, the greater the chance unethical behavior will creep in. It’s important for organisations to give sleep more respect and to support employees’ sleep health rather than disrupt it.

For afternoon productivity

Tricks_to_sleep_in_office2All of this is familiar terrain to NapNow‘s Thea O’Connor, an advocate for napping in Australia. Through NapNow, O’Connor aims to establish the mini-siesta as a socially acceptable and valued practice—not only in our personal lives but also in the workplace. She encourages savvy managers to embrace napping as a simple, inexpensive, but highly effective tool that has been proven to increase productivity. Ultimately, O’Connor would like to see more and more organisations develop a “napping policy”.

Mental health experts support this initiative.  Dr Moira Junge, a health psychologist who specialises in treating people with sleep disorders comments:

Perhaps as a more comprehensive theory of sleep emerges, common attitudes about sleep will also change. For instance, napping is considered normal in children, but in adults it carries a stigma of laziness and inefficiency, despite the fact that it can be extremely effective in improving alertness for many hours afterward.

She promotes a mini-siesta as an antidote to the afternoon slump, a natural effect of our circadian rhythms and something that occurs even after a good night’s sleep.  A brief nap can improve your mood and productivity, alleviate tiredness, increase alertness and reduce errors made at work.  A nap as brief as ten minutes will produce these results.

For quality of life

Speaking at TEDWomen, Arianna Huffington shares a “very small idea” that can awaken much bigger ones: the power of a good night’s sleep is the essence of good leadership. Instead of bragging about our sleep deficits, she urges us to shut our eyes and see the big picture.

“We can sleep our way to increased productivity and happiness—and smarter decision-making.”  Huffington says.  In her words: “What is best for us, giving us more joy, gratitude, and effectiveness in our lives, and what is best for our own careers, is also what’s best for the world.”




Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest adventure.


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