What Happens To Your Body & Brain If You Don’t Get Sleep? Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains

As an insom­ni­ac in a morn­ing person’s world, I wince at sleep news, espe­cial­ly from Matthew Walk­er, neu­ro­sci­en­tist, Berke­ley pro­fes­sor, and author of Why We Sleep. Some­thing of a “sleep evan­ge­list,” as Berke­ley News calls him (he prefers “sleep diplo­mat”), Walk­er has tak­en his mes­sage on the road—or the 21st cen­tu­ry equiv­a­lent: the TED Talk stages and ani­mat­ed explain­er videos.

One such video has Walk­er say­ing that “sleep when you’re dead” is “mor­tal­ly unwise advice… short sleep pre­dicts a short­er life.” Or as he elab­o­rates in an inter­view with Fresh Air’s Ter­ry Gross, “every dis­ease that is killing us in devel­oped nations has causal and sig­nif­i­cant links to a lack of sleep.”

Yeesh. Does he lay it on thick? Nope, he’s got the evi­dence and wants to scare us straight. It’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal tac­tic that hasn’t always worked so well, although next to “sleep or die” ser­mons, there’s good news: sleep, when har­nessed prop­er­ly (yes, some­where in the area of 8 hours a night) can also be a “super­pow­er.” Sleep does “won­der­ful­ly good things… for your brain and for your body,” boost­ing mem­o­ry, con­cen­tra­tion, and immu­ni­ty, just for starters.

But back to the bad.…

In the Tech Insid­er video above, Walk­er deliv­ers the grim facts. As he fre­quent­ly points out, most of us need to hear it. Sleep depri­va­tion is a seri­ous epidemic—brought on by a com­plex of socio-eco­nom­ic-politi­co-tech­no­log­i­cal fac­tors you can prob­a­bly imag­ine. See Walker’s com­par­isons (to the brain as an email inbox and a sewage sys­tem) ani­mat­ed, and learn about how lack of sleep con­tributes to a 24% increase in heart attacks and numer­ous forms of can­cer. (The World Health Orga­ni­za­tion has recent­ly “clas­si­fied night­time shift work as a prob­a­ble car­cino­gen.”)

On the upside, rarely is health sci­ence so unam­bigu­ous. If nutri­tion­ists could only give us such clear-cut advice. Whether we’d take it is anoth­er ques­tion. Learn more about the mul­ti­ple, and some­times fatal, con­se­quences of sleep depri­va­tion in the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed video above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sleep or Die: Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Matthew Walk­er Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imper­il Our Health

How Sleep Can Become Your “Super­pow­er:” Sci­en­tist Matt Walk­er Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

10 Hours of Ambi­ent Arc­tic Sounds Will Help You Relax, Med­i­tate, Study & Sleep

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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