Who Suffers the Most When Sleep-deprived? Daydreamers, of All People

You the sort to lose yourself in a movie, book or your own fantasy world? You're likely to suffer when not allowed to sleep, Ben-Gurion University scientists discover.

Trump supporters await his arrival at a rally, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016: Spot the person most likely to suffer if deprived of sleep.
Evan Vucci/AP

We know sleep deprivation is bad. Missing too much sleep will ultimately be fatal. But is there one group for whom sleep deprivation is worse than for other people? Yes: people with a tendency to obliviousness, says a team of Israeli scientists.

Do you daydream to the point of missing your train station? Or watch movies so raptly that the outer word ceases to exist? If you focus on anything, your fantasy or Gilligan reruns, to the point of obliviousness, you are likely to feel sleep deprivation more keenly than people with inferior powers of disconnection, according to a study by psychologists at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Israel Air Force.

A moment of clarity. Dissociation to the point of obliviousness falls within the category of normal behavior, clarifies Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek, the lead author of the paper "Absorbed in sleep: Dissociative absorption as a predictor of sleepiness following sleep deprivation" published in the journal "Consciousness and Cognition."

However, such dedicated daydreamers feel they have a harder time gaining full alertness even after a normal eight-hour night of sleep, she found.

"If allowed to sleep, compared with other people they still feel they are going to fall asleep any moment," she says, relieving all dedicated daydreamers who wonder why they slept like logs and still feel like they were kicked by mules.

Follow your dreams?

The test was done in two empirically high-functioning samples of people: remotely piloted aircraft officers and Israel Air Force jet pilots, who were given state and trait questionnaires assessing sleep and dissociation before and after full or partial sleep loss.

"Dissociative absorption was a consistent predictor of an increase in sleepiness following sleep loss and following recovery sleep, controlling for baseline sleepiness levels," state the scientists.

Dissociative absorption means involuntary absorption to the point where one disconnects from one's surroundings. It's people so absorbed in the zombie flick on TV that they don't notice the living room flooding. It happens, says Soffer-Dudek, because of a personality trait called “dissociative absorption.”

Utter absorption in non-reality may represent difficulty in regulating states of consciousness, the paper suggests.

And various studies have shown that dissociation, technically an involuntary separation of normally related mental processes, gets worse when we are deprived of sleep. And those among us who tend to dissociation react worse to sleep deprivation: we are relatively less able to pick up and get on with the day.

Sleep within waking

Science views such dissociation as sleep within waking, explains the paper. This is a relatively new concept, explains Soffer-Dudek, qualifying that the descriptions are all subjective, not empiric.

Exactly how the brain is behaving in this dissociative state remains to be seen, Soffer-Dudek adds. But in recent years, science has been relating to dissociation as a mixed state between sleep and awareness, she explains. Like sleep, dissociation is a subjective experience over which the daydreamer may have little control.

The major empiric finding so far is that sleep deprivation leads to dissociation, and conversely, people more susceptible to such dissociative absorption suffered more from sleep deprivation, and felt more tired.

"It involves a temporary lack of reflective consciousness, which means that the individual may act automatically while imagining vividly, bringing about confusion between reality and fantasy," write the scientists.

Don't buy it? Haven't you ever suddenly realized that you're walking down the street talking to your imaginary rabbit? It happens.

At this point the implications of the study are mainly of interest to scientists and their imaginary lab rats. However, the question of who is more susceptible to sleepiness rather matters when it comes to people who fly planes, or need to function in extreme situations with very little sleep such as doctors and combat soldiers, says the team. A good next stage would be to study empiric functionality of the terrifically absorbed they are not allowed to sleep, and see if it's any worse than the less-imaginative.