What happens when your brain gets tired?

Maria Isabel Garcia

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What happens when your brain gets tired?
[Science Solitaire] How did scientists know that the brain gets tired?

If you think your brain is a computer, imagine turning it off and then on again just like you would your computer.

You see the problem right there.  Turning the lights out on your brain would also mean turning off everything else. There is no flip switch for on and off just for the brain.

And if your brain gets turned off, there is no way you can turn it back on again. Sure, there are those who think that we can just upload the contents of our brain without the body and its history but so far, it is still science fiction. Until we see consciousness coming out of a brain that is out of its skull and body and made incarnate again by computers, your brain is still a 3-pound blob, inhabited by a network of cells, animated by electro-chemistry and works largely in mystery that will foil any attempt to treat it as a “machine”.

Another reason your brain is not a computer is that your brain gets tired. Sure, your computer will hang or will do crazy things when you are asking it to do many things (which is usually also what makes people tired), but it does not mean it is tired. It just means the codes are no longer connecting in ways for the computer to give you an appropriate response. But your brain, the one you count on for everything, gets exhausted and when it does, it does weird things without you even knowing it.

First, how did scientists know that the brain gets tired?

Before the last 10 and we still could not peer into live brains to see what brain parts are activated when we do this or that, researchers can only observe people under controlled conditions.

Apparently, it has long been known that if we were concentrating on a task for a prolonged period of time, such as perhaps reviewing or taking an exam or participating in a technical work session, it will be difficult for us to take on later tasks that require such focused attention. And it is not because of the switch in topics. It is because when we are exerting effort to keep our minds on track such as when taking timed exams or also when we are resisting a temptation, we all use the “executive function” of our brains. And the brain muscles that need to be a faithful and committed executive do get tired. So we more likely give in to distractions after that kind of mental amazing race.

And now with brain scanning machines that can actually see which parts have increased or decreased activity depending on what the participants are doing, we can also now see what mental fatigue looks like. In a very recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this ability for self-control to stay on task for prolonged periods or resist easy temptations for the sake of long-term scenarios, relies on the lateral prefrontal cortex or LPFC.

So now that we know that we have a brain that gets tired as seen in our decisions and that that brain part is specifically the LPFC, now what?

In that recent study, the scientists observed that when people engaged in prolonged tests, it is followed by a decreased activity in their LPFC which manifested in the subjects making impulsive and unwise decisions involving money.

This means that it may be good to hold off on important decisions involving money when you have had a long day at work or school. This could also probably explain why people give it all on payday Fridays and why we shouldn’t!

But is that all? The brain gets tired so it short circuits your financial decision-making abilities?

The LPFC is the part largely involved with your working memory – that “working pad” in your head where you scribble short-term memories and make sense of them so you could respond to the task at hand. It is also involved in switching tasks.  In other words, it is central to how we get through our days so brain fatigue will also affect other things aside from giving in to impulsive spending or eating.

And a few years ago, a study found just that – that a normal day delivers enough cargo of challenges to our self-control leaving us more likely to  let go and cheat in the afternoon than in the morning. We are, it seems, morally morning persons.

So should we move to have court cases be tried in the mornings just to be sure we convict or dismiss based on the merits and not on our moral clock? Maybe re-schedule the “talks” with our parents or children in the morning and not at night when everyone’s already had a long day? Imagine whom you would have otherwise helped breathe a little easier had he or she approached you before sun peak?  

I know I am not a machine but also knowing that the things like my morality or how I make decisions about my future is subject to how wary my LPFC is, just throws me off. It is like saying I am not a watch but I still follow some kind of clock. But of course the science does not change just because I feel that way. Maybe my brain is tired. Ask me again tomorrow morning. – Rappler.com

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