What is Microsleep?

A road sign in Australia warning of microsleep.
A road sign in Australia warning of microsleep.. Claver Carroll/Getty Images

Microsleep is a fleeting, uncontrollable, brief episode of sleep which can last anywhere from a single fraction of a second up to 10 full seconds. These episodes of microsleep occur most frequently when a sleepy person is trying to fight sleep and remain awake.

Danger Posed by Microsleep

While it can be harmless if it occurs on your couch while you’re trying to stay awake for a movie, instances of microsleep can also be extremely dangerous.

If it occurs at the wrong time, when you’re driving for instance, microsleep can lead to accidents involving cars or heavy machinery as well as other dangerous situations. Falling asleep behind the wheel, even briefly is a gravely dangerous situation that can lead the potential injury, or even death of you and others on the road.

Is Microsleep Actually Sleep?

There are two main stages of sleep that a person goes through. The two stages of sleep are rapid eye movement sleep (REM) sleep and non rapid eye movement sleep (NREM). Microsleep does not fall directly into either category of sleep, as it is a fleeting and uncontrollable episode that does not last long enough for the characteristics of either state of sleep to emerge. REM sleep is characterized by changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and overall breathing rate. Also during REM sleep, blood flow becomes increased to the brain, as well as the penis and clitoris, which results in engorgement.

Non rapid eye movement sleep is typically characterized by a decreased amount of blood flow to the brain and the skeletal muscle. Other characteristics of non rapid eye movement sleep include decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and total volume of air cycling in and out of the lungs. Microsleep does not occur for long enough for any of these characteristics to fully occur.

Common Occurrences of Microsleep

Microsleep often occurs when an individual is sleep deprived. Nighttime is when a vast majority of microsleep incidents happen, in terms of driving. Drivers driving at night often become tired. However, they often have places to get to or deadlines to meet, and thus force themselves to push on.

Preventing Microsleep

Microsleep is often the direct result of sleep deprivation. Thus, elimination of sleep deprivation can help to reduce the chance of microsleep. A great way to eliminate sleep deprivation, other than simply sleeping more, is to improve overall sleep efficiency.

Luckily, there are many ways to improve sleep efficiency. One great way to improve sleep efficiency is to eliminate all potential distractions when sleeping. There should be no television on and no music playing. If you are accustomed to having the television or music on, you should work to break those habits and go to sleep in a quiet, dark, and peaceful atmosphere. All lights should be off, especially flashing, blinking, or especially bright lights.

Cell phones should not be looked at in bed, as the lights of the screen can work the stimulate the brain and keep it awake. Taking such steps can help to improve sleep efficiency, and thus work to eliminate microsleep.

Examples: When Tate swerved the car at the sound of the rumble strip, he realized that he’d experienced a microsleep and suggested someone else drive.

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