Sleep deprivation on the campaign trail

The gruelling final few months of the presidential election campaign are notorious in political circles. Candidates get by on as little as four hours sleep most days due to huge demands on their attention and judgement as the campaign reaches its zenith. With the current election teetering on a knife edge, presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will have to pack as much into their schedules as possible whilst they power toward the finish line.

But what kind of effect does chronic sleep deprivation have and what sort of mental challenges must the candidates endure?

Ever since the introduction of artificial lighting two centuries ago, the time the average person spends sleeping has begun to decrease. Whilst the precise role of sleep on our physiology and function is not yet clear, the effects of its absence are well-documented:

It has been shown that even mild sleep deprivation can ‘fog’ the mind. One study, carried out by an Australian research group, found that mild sleep deprivation caused similar deficits to those seen following alcohol consumption. Specifically, performance on a computer-based movement task was impaired equally by both 22 hours without sleep and having a blood-alcohol content of 0.08% (above the legal driving limit).

Both movement-related tasks, such as this, and non-movement-related tasks are well-documented to be affected by sleep deprivation. In fact, most executive functioning tasks are inhibited! MRI scans have shown that activity in an area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex declines when subjects are sleep-deprived. This part of the brain integrates all sorts of processes including perception, movement and verbal reasoning. As a result, any task that requires a lot of attention becomes difficult or, in some cases, almost impossible. Any form of novelty, including being placed in an unusual situation or answering unexpected questions becomes difficult.

Obama’s campaign trail Oct 24-25. Obama travelled over 6,000 miles in just two days. His schedule included several TV interviews and rallies. Similarly, in October alone Mitt Romney engaged in 61 campaign events across America.

Sleep deprivation is also known to negatively affect a person’s ability to memorise new information, a problem which can have a serious knock-on effect on their ability to plan and make decisions. The part of the brain which deals with memory is known as the hippocampus. Scientists believe that, when learning something new, sleep allows connections in this brain region to be modified and strengthened which consolidates memories into more permanent forms. Thus it’s not surprising that not getting enough sleep can lead to memory problems. Indeed, even when awake, neurons in this part of the brain in sleep-deprived individuals don’t fire as frequently or function as they should.

Another major problem anyone who has experienced sleep deprivation will recognise is the affect it can have on our emotions. Of course, it is common for people to become short-tempered and irritable when tired. However, research has shown that lack of sleep can also lead to more serious emotional changes including a reduction in an individual’s ability to solve problems using moral reasoning. Rather than making decisions based upon internal moral values, sleep-deprived people can shift to more external, rule-based decision making (more akin to the ‘black and white’ reasoning used by many children). Emotional memory also seems to be impaired, making it more difficult for a person to empathise with others.

People also become hungrier when they aren’t sleeping. This is not thought to be caused by extra energy expenditure (basal metabolic rate when asleep is 90% of that when awake) but instead, is believed to be due to an adverse increase in ghrelin (a hormone that causes hunger) and concurrent decrease in leptin (a hormone which prevents hunger).

All of these impairments combine to induce a haze that puts incredible stress on the individual. That two older men (Obama and Romney are 51 and 65 respectively) can debate, write speeches, plan meetings, strategise and campaign whilst mentally and physically strained is testament to their indefatigability. However, with recent polls showing less than 1% between the two rivals, even the smallest misjudgement or gaff could mean the difference between despair or delight.

Given the campaign suspension from both candidates during hurricane Sandy, it’s possible that each enjoyed a precious full night’s sleep during this critical period. Now that the race has returned to its usual punishing final sprint, it may be that whoever can best deal with the sleepless nights will be at a crucial and possibly decisive advantage.

Post by: Chris Logie

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