Sleep Deprived But Staying Alive

You know how something sounds like a good idea and, well, then isn’t? That happened to me last week when I joined a PhD research project on sleep and source memory at the University of Texas. My boyfriend requested (more like pleading and imploring) that I join him.

“Oh, come on,” he entreated. “It’ll be fun. We even get to stay up all night together.”

“To what end?” I asked. “I never even pulled an all-nighter for college finals.”

“It’s for research. And it’s important because it’s for our age group: 65 to 75. Let’s see how our memories hold up under sleep deprivation.”

“Not good, I’m presuming,” I said with doomsday reflection. “I really do dislike being put into an age category as if our brains are crumbling before our very eyes.”

Our lovely and brilliant PhD candidate/researcher was persuasive and patient. We had a memory test a week before our sleep deprivation experience – a 12-hour stay awake marathon that made me deeply crabby and nauseous around 6 am the following morning. I didn’t think I could make it through the next 2 hours without lashing out at someone near (hoping it wouldn’t be the PhD candidate) so that left the gentle assistant to pick up my pieces.

The purpose of this study was to investigate the behavioral responses to learning and memory tasks in 2 modes: deprived of sleep and fully rested. I haven’t gotten to the fully rested part as yet, but I understand I am to wear a cap with electrodes all over the top of the cap and on my face. These electrodes monitor my memory while sleeping. I’m praying I don’t have any provocative thoughts.

I’ve taken surveys, questionnaires, inquiring about my demographic, health, sleep, activities and cognitive abilities. And I’ve taken tests that follow cognitive tasks that test attention, cognition, learning and some motor skills.

What do I know at this moment? Certainly I know nothing for certain. There were no benchmarks, no goals, no labels and no opinions.

How I feel at this moment is another issue. I’m confident that I have sufficient brain capacity to plan, execute, follow through, retain important information and speak fluently about complex ideas that involve human behavior and sometimes politics. I am surprised that I retain quite a good grasp of my computer’s idiosyncrasies and how my Smart TV and recorder works together – and even how it’s wired to work.

My brain works pretty well in the moment, however, sometimes I loose the ability to reference past names, places and activities I once had at my fingertips. On the bright side, I just saw Graham Nash of “Crosby, Stills & Nash” and knew who he was instantly.

In the process of recovering memory, I find that what I want to access will appear in time. It might be the next day or the next, but I reclaim the reference and I am joyful.

Our brains have plasticity – the ability to expand and increase in size. This means we can teach our brain a new way of thinking connecting the right/left brain more efficiency. And for us Boomers, it’s our next revolution – the rubberband revolution.

Here’s a smart way to begin to stretch the mind: set aside some of those old mindsets, rigid ideas and limited perceptions that can dominate your thinking and lead to dead ends. A closed mind is dangerous because it allows us to compartmentalize uncomfortable thoughts and feeling and that’s a prescription for mindless repetition and repetition can be a real brain killer.

The following are 5 techniques to help stretch your mind:
Reduce resistance by eliminating defense mechanisms
Stay on the positive track by eliminating distractions
Eliminate negative self-talk and negative feelings
Learn to adapt and you’ll learn to accept change
Challenge your mind with new tasks & new ways of thinking

Stretching the mind includes taking some risks, a few leaps of faith and a willingness to make glorious mistakes. But the good news is there’s no such thing as failure. You can stay up all night and beat the odds.


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