Get some sleep or lose your brains

You know the drill: the day just wasn’t long enough, the workload has no mercy on you and by the time darkness has fallen and the city is sound asleep, you’re still alone at your desk with the soft humming of your laptop’s hard drive. Before you know it, the sun has risen and the day’s duties are calling.

The next time you pull an all-nighter, remember that being a bit grumpy the next morning is not the only effect it has on you.

In fact, it will make you dumb.

Missing just one night’s sleep has an evident impact on the brain’s ability to function, so the Brookhaven National Laboratory discovered in a research project. Having made seven healthy men stay awake through the night, the Laboratory put them through a series of tests, competing against seven other men who had just had a good night’s sleep.

An FMRI scanner took pictures of the subjects’ brains to find out how the sleep-deprived brains would differ from the rested ones.

Naturally, the rested subject performed better at their tasks. But what the experiment showed was not just that we’re less efficient after a waking night ? we progressively lose the ability to think.

The reason for this is that a lack of sleep starves the brain in the wrong areas: the parietal lobe and the occipital lobe. Both areas are highly involved in processing numbers and visual information.

The thalamus, however ? the part of our brain regulating consciousness and alertness ? was hard at work. Why? It was, necessarily, working hard to stay awake, selfishly taking up all the energy you might need to think through a problem.

Although you might feel able enough to stay awake for 48 hours at once, no matter how well your body performs, your brain will have to divert all its energy to the challenge of staying alert. This leaves not enough for what you’re really at work for: to think.

A sleepless night comes at a high price. Even though you might feel ready to face the day, don’t underestimate that your ability to make decisions and distinguishing between good or bad is very limited. 

Entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan herself agreed on the implications of the Brookhaven National Laboratory study in an article on

“You can turn up when you’re tired, but you can’t think or be relied upon to make solid or sound decisions,” she wrote. “This may go a long way towards explaining bad decisions. It certainly means that when someone comes into work off of the red eye, instead of applauding, you should send them home before they do any damage.”

When running a high-growth business, is it really necessary to stay awake through the night? Or do we just force ourselves to work harder than we should? Share your thoughts with us.

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