Time and time again in your university life, a little voice will come along compelling you to put off your work just a little bit later. Unchecked, you come closer and closer to the work’s deadline and before you know it, it’s 12 hours until your deadline and you imagine the start screen of the game titled ‘Pulling an All-nighter’ coming up. I myself have pressed start to that game many times (and hummed the super Mario theme to it) so let’s pull back the graphics and look behind the science of what happens to you in those precious sleepless hours of non-stop, overnight work.
In the first few hours, one is typically going to be hyperaware, motivated and scrambling to get the introduction of your assignment done. At this point, your brain wants to be productive and get everything done, so you’ll receive a helpful supply of the neurotransmitter Dopamine to encourage you to keep going. Dopamine is sometimes known as the ‘happy hormone’. It causes the feeling of exhilaration that often accompanies exercise or working hard and is also associated with attraction and pleasure.
The other hormone involved in well-being and happiness is Serotonin, which is probably also familiar. This helps to regulate your cognitive capacity, mood and it directly influences the prevention of depression. It is important during the all-nighter (and in life in general) that this is maintained so you stay focussed. It also helps you avoid ’emotional fatigue’ through the night: that run down feeling where your brain feels stuck in a loop (usually after the first 2-3 hours). That’s your serotonin crashing.
Midnight to 2 AM
Taking breaks is essential for many reasons: not to stare at a screen for too long, stretch out your muscles and to stop your neurotransmitters from depleting, leaving you crashing at 2 AM.
Eating something also helps. As your blood glucose levels start to drop it will only speed-up the serotonin depletion. (Note: this is where restaurants which are open for 24 hours can help you out.)
Whilst the ‘all-nighter’ strategy is effective for last minute assignments, it is one of the worst things you can do to succeed in a test (other than not attending it all together). Alongside the reasons listed above, studies have been conducted showing sleep deprivation is conclusively biopsychological damaging in the formation and retention of new information. The studies found that this was due to increased presence of enzymes which degrade neurotransmitter functions in the brain as a result of sleep depression.
Your Body Clock
Getting into irregular sleeping patterns disrupts your natural body clock, known as your ‘Circadian rhythm’. It is a biopsychological phenomenon which is directly linked with the 24 hour function of the body, and this includes the process of sleep. Rhythms are found in most biological organisms including plants, fungi and other animals. They are affected by the presence of sunlight or any biologically external factors and therefore help us distinguish whether it is day or night. They play a role in many factors which influence your motivation and energy levels. For example, when you start to feel tired in the afternoon it is due to a drop in body temperature associated with typical REM sleep patterns and rest.
Given that the country is back in lockdown and university is almost all online, conforming to a sleeping pattern and routine is very challenging. We all know how easy it is to lie down in your room all afternoon sleeping (a lot like my cat right now as I write this). However, the correlation in disrupting your circadian rhythms and negative impacts on mental health is apparent. It isn’t wise to make ‘all-nighters’ a habit, despite their appeal they are not the best means of maintaining healthy brain activity and it is wise to recognise signs of this.
As students, it is almost a right of passage to undertake an ‘all-nighter’ at least once. However, it is important to recognise the effects of disrupting routines, especially in these challenging times.