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So often, the difficulties we face in trying to embrace and pursue meaningful change in our lives, or simply to accomplish something meaningful, can be tracked back to one of the most simplest problems there is to solve.

The lack of sleep.

It’s a fact, sleep deprivation kills performance.  Not only that, but lack of sleep kills creativity too, and memory (especially since it’s during REM sleep, the second sleep cycle, that our brains convert memories from short to long term storage).

In fact, sleep deprivation ends up destroying all higher-processing functions within the brain.

Here’s how that happens (in a nutshell).

When you deprive yourself of sleep a number of important things happen on a neurobiological level.

YOUR BRAIN NEEDS SUGAR

Your brain is like a sugar addict, it needs lots of sugar to function.  In truth, your brain, while processing, burns up energy (stored in sugars) as much as a fully-flexed quadricep (the largest muscle in your body – in the upper thigh).

As the brain burns through your current supply of blood sugar, it lacks the energy stores it needs to function, and so it just doesn’t, or does so at a much-diminished capacity.

It’s why when you’re tired, you crave sugary foods (like donuts and candy).  Your brain needs sugar.

It’s been shown that after 24 hours of sleep deprivation, there’s a 6% overall reduction in glucose reaching the brain.

But it gets worse.  The loss of sugar-assets isn’t equally distributed.  Most of the loss is in the parietal lobe and the prefrontal cortex, which suffer a loss of 12 to 14%.  Those are the areas most crucial to thinking.

Those areas are responsible for idea discernment, differentiating between good and bad, and similarly, for social control.  In fact, it’s much like being drunk.

In fact, Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Business School, Charles Czeisler,  states “We now know that 24 hours without sleep or a week of sleeping four or five hours a night induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%.”

That’s above all legal limits for alcohol while driving.  Predictably, 20% of automobile accidents are cause by nothing more than lack of sleep.

That’s right, going a day without sleep, or a number of days on reduced sleep, and your cognitive impairment is equal to being legally drunk.

Interesting then, why doctors in residency, a field in which you’d most value peak cognition, is designed to deliver just the opposite due to intentionally inflicted sleep deprivation.

Charles Czeisler calls lack of sleep “The Performance Killer“.

HIGHER ORDER COGNITION GOES FIRST

The areas of the brain responsible for the highest order of brain activity is the parietal and occipital lobes, along with the prefrontal cortex.  Unfortunately, with sleep deprivation, these areas are the first to suffer.

The reason for this, is that the thalamus — the region of the brain responsible for keeping you awake — ends up steeling all of the energy as it works in overdrive to compensate for your lack of sleep.

So all your energy simply goes into staying awake.

An adult needs between 6-8 hours of sleep each night.  Less than that and sleep deprivation begins to starve the brain.

So if you care about your brain, and your ability to think, and your capacity to employ all your neuronal powers in your efforts to change your life, impact others, or accomplish something meaningful… get some sleep.

Rusty

(Image courtesy Sang Yu)

There’s a well-known, but somewhat surprising phenomenon that occurs when people face disaster in their lives… they find it easier to make substantial, life changes.  

There’s a biological reason for this. See, actions (habits, traditions, behaviors, etc.), at their most fundamental level are simply physical pathways formed between neurons in your brain.

In order to perform an action, your neurons have to change – sometimes they change their structure, sometimes reach out and make new connections, sometimes they change the signals made with existing connections, etc. But once a pathway is created that produces the desired reactions, that pathway is a physical manifestation, or representation of that action.

The more you repeat that action, the stronger those pathways become (increased connection ratios, redundant connections, better chemical flow, etc.).

To change a behavior, means that when the electrical flow (or the sequence of events that lead up to that action) reaches a certain point, you’ve got to demand an intervention in this pre-established neural pathway. You have to force your brain to reach out and create new connections, to change itself structurally. This requires enormous discipline, and dedication, because your brain is highly adept at following the path of least resistance. It’s an efficient mechanism.

But it’s also adept at survival. And so when disaster strikes, it forces itself to create new connections so that it can adapt and survive. Otherwise, when change is not associated with an imminent need, it relies solely on our own discipline and desire, which is usually not compelling or persistent enough.

Rusty

This post describes how you can increase the success of your change initiatives by understanding the biological foundation of change.

Entropy.  It’s a concept that describes the natural deterioration of order.  It’s a process of degeneration that begins almost instantly, in almost everything.

Buy something new and almost instantly it begins to show signs of being used (at least if you live in my house, with 6 kids).  Learn a whole bunch of things and pretty soon you’ve forgotten most of what you learned.

Sit down and try some algebra… that’s entropy.  Go look at your kid’s bedrooms… that’s entropy.  Stop exercising for a few weeks and then go weigh yourself… that’s entropy.  Watch the news for an hour… that’s entropy.

It’s a simple concept really.  Any system tends to lose order, or energy, and will continue to do so until there is none left.  That is unless there is a constant, steady, reliable, and deliberate stream of energy being put back into the system to maintain its order.

It’s a universal principle in every aspect of your life.  The moment you stop inputting into the system, deterioration begins.

That’s the reason why repetition of some of the smallest, most simple things can end up being the most important.  Small things like meaningful daily prayer, diligent daily scripture study, weekly church attendance, are crucial to staving staving off spiritual entropy.

Reading, thinking, and learning on a regular (if not daily) basis is crucial to overcoming intellectual, cognitive entropy.

The latest research in neuroplasticity shows us that when it comes to neuronal health, it’s a basic “use it or lose it” principle.  Regardless how strong the connection used to be, if you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it.  All behaviors, memories, talents, and abilities have a physical imprint in your brain by way of a pathway of interconnecting neurons.  And when you stop exercising those connections, entropy sets in and the connections become weaker and weaker until your brain finds no more need to maintain them and they become completely severed.

In truth, it’s the cumulative effect of frequent repetition of small exercises is most effective in staving off the entropy that would otherwise engulf us.   Hence, through small and simple things are great things brought to pass.

Entropy is when you ease back, it’s when you decide “it doesn’t matter” or “I can let it slip for a day”, it’s when you stop inputting into the system. Spiritually, it leaves you without the armor of God, and Satan, who doesn’t rest, is left with all the opportunity he needs.

Spiritual entropy is one of the strongest tools Satan has in his employ.  All he has to do… is nothing.  Just wait… which is why, again, it’s through the diligent, deliberate, and constant repetition of the simplest things that in the end may make the biggest difference.

The same holds true for all other aspects of our lives, every worthy endeavor.  Once you stop inputting, you start slipping.

So don’t stop, no matter what.

Rusty