David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
I Feel Like A Sleep Number

June 29, 2017

For the last three days I have been participating in an online sleep & brain study via Cambridge Brain Sciences at Western University.  As many people know, I have had sleep problems for years that may manifest themselves in other physical problems, or maybe the physical problems manifest themselves in sleep problems?  What the hell do I know?  I stopped caring about the cause or effect years ago. I have tried and abandoned the C-Pap, vowing instead to plow through life as best I can.

That's why the chance to participate in this study interested me so. On many days, I believe my overall fatigue and low energy level is affecting my brain's ability to function. I know I will stretch the comparison, but during a week when Warren Sapp announces that he will leave his brain to science after he dies to help study concussions in football, I felt motivated to share my sleep-deprived brain with the general research community.  

Participation took place over 3 days.  Here's how it played out:

Day 1) I complete the perfunctory never-ending questionnaire for demographic and informational purposes. As I clicked on doctorate as my highest educational level, I felt the usual pressure of defending the honor of all eggheads around the world.  Meanwhile, questions about my personal life and interests are thought-provoking (I was cautious with the honest answers I gave to amount of alcohol consumed a week; or amount of "video-gaming" I do -- "video gaming" being a term broader than I initially thought) and give me hope that some correlations might be drawn between my activities and my sleep-deprived brain.

Many questions about my sleep patterns over the last month are posed; they allow me to capture, to some degree, how much my sleep patterns are not really patterns, but something closer to random episodes.  I am cheered by the depth of background questions and am hopeful regarding the study's potential impact, if not for me, in general,  but perhaps for mankind overall.  (How's that for an egotistical view?)

Once I have completed the background material, I am asked to participate in Day 1's activity.  I answer 3 generic questions about my sleep the night before (when did I go to sleep, when did I wake up; how would I describe the quality of my sleep).  Then, I am launched into 12 online "thinking" games, the kind of games that test our reasoning, verbal and memory abilities much in the same way that the SAT tested these.  Not an auspicious start: I have no interest in feeling like a high schooler again.  

Too impatient to realize that Game 1 of the 12 was giving me an introductory instruction, I clicked to move forward and spent most of the three minutes trying to even figure out what to do.  When I was done with Game 1, I desperately wanted a place to leave a comment ("note that while my score of 5 seems really pathetic, it's actually pretty damn good when you factor in that I hadn't paid attention to the instructions and had to figure out what to do!"). Alas there was no opportunity to comment; I was disappointed. Shouldn't they want to measure how much our brains want to justify our actions?  It's not all about getting right answers!

So, I moved on . . . to Game 2, Game 3, Game 4 and so forth. Each game was accompanied by a 90-second or 180-second game clock; or, we had 3 strikes (wrong answers) before being forced to move on. Once I knew to review the instructions before moving on, I was fine.  I am sure my scores reflected my doctorate-earning mind.

But the games just kept going on . . . and on . . . and on.  As I lost more and more energy and got more and more fatigued by the repetitiveness of the games, I wondered if this was the brilliance of their research: "this guy's mind surely shows the signs of fatigue we have noted as he loses interest in the experiment itself."  However, since the questions about my sleep only asked about when I went to sleep and (finally) woke up, there would be nothing to indicate how choppy the sleep was.  By the time I finished Game 12 and was locked out until Day 2, I was ecstatic to be done.

Day 2) Coming off a night of pretty fitful sleep, I was optimistic about my participation in Day 2 of this study.  I unlock that part of the website and basically relive Day 1.  The three initial questions about my sleep for the night before are the exact same, and since I basically fell asleep at about the same time, woke up for good at the same time, and rated the sleep with an equal label of "poor," I couldn't see how anyone could make hypotheses about my brain activity as I launched into the same 12 games.

At least for Game 1, I knew what I was doing.  Went from a "5" to a 25 easily.  Hah!  Who knows, however, what a researcher might deduct from that?  Nevertheless, as I schlepped through the other 11 games, my enthusiasm and energy level waned quickly.  In fact, given that I was so tired from a poor night's sleep the night before, I actually fell momentarily asleep playing some of these 90-second games.  If that isn't the scientific hope . . . track my brain at that moment!  And maybe this isn't the best thing to admit, but once that happened, I simply started randomly selecting answers, getting almost all of them wrong.

Given that my sleep information was identical to the night before, I wondered if the only deduction one could make is that I was getting progressively stupider regardless of sleep. 

My only instructions to prep for Day 3 was to alter my sleep, in some way, for the night before.  They suggested going to bed earlier or waking up later.  Since the latter is impossible for a work week, and since there really isn't much chance of me going to bed much earlier, I decided to change the activities before bedtime: no alcohol and no food after dinner.  Talk about a commitment to the research!  But, would it pay off with the Day 3 games?  Did I want it to?  Hell, no.  Between alcohol and food, there is one I can't give up and one I won't give up (I leave it to the reader to guess which is which).

Day 3) Well, damn it, I slept pretty decently (for me), so I face some moral quandaries moving forward regarding my appreciation of food and drink before bedtime.  Hopefully my results don't show too much improvement in my mental capabilities.  I'd hate for the deck to be stacked that much against my long-time evening-time companions.

Alas, unlocking the tests/games quickly convinced me that there would be no definitive confirmation of brain power per my night's rest.  The same 3 questions asked when I went to sleep, when I awoke, and how I rated my sleep.  The same 12 games were then played, although I think they may have mixed up the order on me. That made me sharp initially,  but before long, the games, even at 90 seconds or 180 seconds long, became very tedious. Especially on the memory ones, where I had to memorize 8 things or more in a row, I just didn't give a shit. Maybe the research should relate attitude to brain power.

Still, I got through all of the games so that I could see the immediate results promised me (the findings of the study overall are promised me sometime in the future).  And the immediate results were . . . disheartening. One set of bar graphs showed my scores in each of the 3 areas (memory, reasoning, and verbal) within the percentile of other subjects. However, it is not clear how those scores aligned with each day-after-sleep. All I can assume is that on a good day, maybe a day following a decent night's sleep, I am in the 30th percentile for memory; 61st percentile for reasoning; and 91st percentile for verbal.  Not sure how much that correlates with the sleep for the night before.

Even more underwhelming is the bar graph showing my sleep profile . . . for a whopping three nights.  I "slept" between 7.5 and 8.5 hours a night, although it would more accurately capture the amount of time I spent in bed, because on all of those nights, I was waking up rather frequently.  The sleep quality and bed time graphs revealed little of interest about me, although the latter suggests that there are A LOT of people who go to bed between midnight and 3:00 am.  Are my fellow subjects a bunch of college students?

So, what did I learn though my time as research subject?  I am tempted to say not much; however, I don't think I can conclusively prove that alcohol and food the night before play an effect on my brain power the next day.  I'm going to go with that.