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Do you think our everyday desires change when we don't sleep?

Have you ever pulled an all-nighter? Have you had to stay awake for at least 24 hours? Did you enjoy it? What happened? Did you finish what you wanted? Did you feel like you were functioning correctly? Did it change any of your normal desires or behaviors? What would you have done to get some sleep at that point?

Hopefully you haven’t had to do that. I have only done it twice in my life (and even then I definitely snuck in a couple of naps here and there haha). It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t worth it. And I hope to never do it again.

So, for those of you that haven’t experienced this, here are some things you can expect as consequences, according to research. For those of you that have stayed up all night, does this match your experience? Let’s see.

Researchers asked participants to do the following:

Get 3 days of 7-8 hours of sleep as you normally would in your own home. On the 4th day, the participants were split into 2 different groups. 1 group as able to stay at home and sleep as they normally would again. The other group had to come into a laboratory setting and stay awake the entire night.

After that night, both groups filled out questionnaires about things they would want to do if they could.

Here are the results.

There were very intuitive things such as, sleepier people are more likely to want to be at home, shut their eyes, and have a quiet space as well as sleep in their own (or actually any) bed. This last one is actually 24 times as likely!

When it comes to social things, most socializing is off the table: no friends, strangers, or going on dates. However, people that were sleepier also wanted to be taken care of by a partner. Interesting, eh? When we are lacking our own internal resources, we want someone to take care of us. I think that makes sense.

Except… I also know when I am sleepy, I just want to be left alone. The most helpful thing a person could do is to stay out of my way and let me sleep. Right? People that are sleepy seem to agree and are 5 times as likely to want to be alone.

Anyway, these sleepy people also were less likely to want to do any sort of physical activities or go grocery shopping (less than a fifth as likely). Also makes sense. BUT, people would also be willing to exert extra effort and resources if it meant they will be able to get some sleep. People said 2 things: 1) sleepier people will WALK miles if they knew it would get them to a bed to be able to sleep and 2) sleepier people will pay money to get some sleep.

The last little bit had to deal with food and thirst. What do you think happens? When we lack sleep, do we feel hungrier? Do we feel thirstier? Well…no and no, at least not on average. Some people did, some people didn’t. But there was no patterned way this happened.

Okay, so maybe you aren’t hungrier in general, but do you think maybe you would want to eat different types of foods? Maybe sleep people want to eat sweets more? Proteins maybe? Fruits? Well…no and no and no.

But, wait, Alex. You’re telling me that people don’t eat sweets more when they are sleepy? I feel like I have heard that…somewhere. Was that not true? Is my whole life a lie? What even IS true anymore?

Well, look. First off, stop. There are more important things for you to be putting your energy toward. Second, that actually isn’t what I am saying.

The current research only says people don’t WANT to eat sweets more often when they are sleepy. Believe it or not, someone’s wants don’t always align with their actually behaviors. And even if they did, some people probably want sweets more and some probably actually don’t. But the point is, we can consciously realize that we shouldn’t be eating something (or too much of something) and not have the willpower or self-control to stop ourselves, especially if we are sleepy.

So, was any of this informative to you? I hope so.

But, there is still more to discuss and I wonder if this changes what you think of these findings.

There are 3 big pieces of information I want to talk about when it comes to this study. First, they only used 123 participants. This also means that there are only about 60 people who stayed home to sleep, and only about 60 that were sleep deprived. Is that enough people to make these large conclusions about what people do or don’t do without sleep?

Maybe. These effects did seem pretty large (e.g., people were 24x as likely to want to sleep in their own bed when sleep deprived or people being 1/5th as likely to want to be with friends). But that also tends to happen when you don’t enough people in your study.

Why do I say that? Well, things that are intuitive or likely or common in your experience don’t need large amounts of people to verify that is actually the case. If 5 people say that “they feel hungry if they don’t eat” then you can probably believe that is the case pretty generally speaking. But if 5 people say “sitting in trees cures cancer” then you may want to see if more people have had this experience.

Most things in this study are intuitive; they make sense and are likely even things you have experienced. Maybe not everything. And maybe you feel things more or less strongly than others, but generally, this is what happens. We might not really need more people in this case.

So then, 2 other things. Participants were 21 years of age on average. What does this mean to you? Should we discredit these findings? Or do you think these findings would apply more broadly to other age groups? From a science standpoint, you shouldn’t infer beyond what was within the sample. And you would want to verify this by repeating the study over and over with different age groups. But, outside of that, I mean, I don’t see why the age would change this. If anything, it just changes how strong the effect is, but the effect is probably still the same.

Also, everyone was from Sweden. Does this matter? Again, probably not. Maybe people from the US wouldn’t want to walk to get sleep and would only pay money. That sounds American. But aside from that, would we expect this to be specific to people from Sweden? I don’t think so.

Maybe you have a different opinion and that is also okay! These conversations are good to continue to get closer and closer to the truth.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think. All I can really do is figure out how this applies to my life.

Until next time.


Citation: Axelsson, J., Ingre, M., Kecklund, G., Lekander, M., Wright Jr, K. P., & Sundelin, T. (2020). Sleepiness as motivation: a potential mechanism for how sleep deprivation affects behavior. Sleep, 43(6), zsz291.

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