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What the Snooze Button is Really Doing to Your Brain

sleepyheadsMy intention in pushing “snooze” and closing my eyes for another 9 minutes of rest is to allow myself to slowly and gently transition from sleep to wakefulness. I had thought that those 9 minutes would give my body and mind the chance to warm up a little bit before I call upon them to get breakfast on the table while simultaneously packing lunches, planning the next few hours of the day, and responding to the needs of 5 people (myself included). I also considered it a bit of a mental trick. How could I complain about how little sleep I was getting when, in fact, I allowed myself another 9 (or 18 . . . or 27 . . . ) minutes of sleep?

I thought the snooze button was my friend and ally in the battle against tiredness, if not sleep deprivation.

But I may have misjudged it. I say this because I think that Maria Konnikova brings up a good point in her recent post on The New Yorker‘s Elements blog. Namely, pushing snooze and falling back asleep means that you are at the very beginning of another sleep cycle the part that is the most difficult to wake up from when the alarm clock rings again and rattles you, hard, out of sleep. And then when you actually do have to get out of bed (at least if you are going to get to work, or get your kids to school on time), your brain is less awake than it would have been if you’d gotten up the first time the alarm jolted you from sleep.

Those few extra minutes of sleep may seem like a small indulgence with very small consequences maybe a bit more rushing around to get out the door but the bigger picture of sleep cycles and circadian rhythms tells us differently. As Konnikova tells it, when we are forced awake at the beginning of our sleep cycle, sleep inertia that clumsy, drowsy, confused state between being asleep and being fully awake lasts longer and is more severe than it would be if we had awakened naturally.  And sleep inertia can, in reality, last much longer than we would think before we are at our peak performance, meaning we’re not necessarily making the best decisions until we’ve been on our feet for a couple of hours. Also, our perceptions of how we slept are shaped by those last few minutes, and when we’re rattled awake at the start of a cycle, it’s likely that we’ll think we’ve slept worse than we actually did.

Of course, most of us would be waking up to an alarm clock on a weekday no matter what (and possibly to a more demanding, less tractable, though probably more adorable one on the weekends), and it is also possible that the alarm went off just as you entered another sleep cycle anyway. So, unless you figure out your sleep cycle well enough that you can set your alarm to wake you at the optimal time between cycles, it isn’t necessarily the snooze button that is the enemy. It’s alarm clocks in general that are causing us to wander around in a stupor for much too long after we’ve shed the sheets. And, even more broadly, it is a society that demands we get to work or school or wherever at a certain time. The real solution is to awaken naturally ideally with the morning light and with our melatonin (sleep hormone) levels.

This solution, however, is quite unlikely for most of us. Waking slowly and naturally is a luxury most of us cannot afford. Konnikova’s point is taken, but I find it impractical.

So what is the next best thing? Maybe someday I’ll figure out my sleep cycles and set the alarm for the perfect time. But for now, I’m going to take those extra 9 minutes when I can grab them. And I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

 

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