Obama’s all-nighter: fast, furious and foolish

President Barack Obama would be well advised to catch some sleep on the plane during his whirlwind tour. EPA/Michael Reyonds

Politicians of all persuasions often claim they need little sleep to lead their nations. Thatcher, Hawke, Abbott, Rudd, Berlusconi and Clinton are all examples of this “on the job 24 hours per day” club. Barack Obama is the latest to sign up.

Currently Obama is on a two-day campaign race through eight states. He recently told a crowd of supporters, “This is the first stop on our 48-hour fly-around campaign marathon extravaganza. We’re going to pull an all-nighter — no sleep.” Looking back, it’s clear Obama is a serial “sleep deprivationist” with a number of all-nighters during his 2008 campaign.

Going without sleep during campaigning is not just a US phenomenon. In the 2010 Federal election, Tony Abbott put in his own 48-hour eye-opener.

He said:

Why sleep at a time like this, if there are voters to be seen, if there are cases to be made, if there’s an argument to be put across to the public.

For politicians, functioning without little sleep seems to be a form of machismo – witness the frequent late night parliamentary sessions in parliament or boasts about Kevin Rudd’s staying power reading documents through the night, as if he was a rival to the wombat as Australia’s most famous nocturnal mammal.

Obama’s 48-hour trip is gruelling, and if he doesn’t sleep he’ll suffer. Twitter/@BarackObama

The reality is that pulling an all-nighter or going without sleep for 24 or 48 hours makes no sense, especially for political leaders who need clear heads to make decisions. Progressive hours without sleep results in an increasing need for sleep and worsening brain function. This is amplified by our body’s circadian rhythms that program us to be awake during the day and asleep at night. As a result, the effects of sleep deprivation are always accentuated during the night hours. Historically, pulling an all nighter or a series of all-nighters has led to disastrous decision-making typified by the catastrophes at Chernobyl or involving the oil tanker, Exxon Valdez.

Without sleep, the ability to concentrate deteriorates, as does memory and complex thinking. Sleep deprivation also causes a failure in judgement – so that you don’t even know you are making errors. Micro-sleeps start to occur at greater frequency and the brain actually starts recruiting extra resources by shifting activity to areas that normally lie quiet in the well-rested state. This can help briefly in emergency situations but is not a long lasting safety net. Going without sleep for 24 hours results in greater risk taking as seen from experiments using gambling tasks. Casinos take advantage of this by well-worn techniques to keep their clientele awake and at the table – bright lights, noise and food service.

On the road, these effects result in more sinister problems of being unable to judge speed and fall asleep risks. There are some similarities between progressive sleep deprivation and increased alcohol consumption. Certainly by the time you hit 48 hours without sleep you can get confused and disinhibited.

Longer periods of sleep deprivation can result in irritability, impaired mood and even paranoia. Research ethics committee are not keen on experiments where sleep deprivation is extended beyond 40 hours – this timeframe is starting to get too close to torture.

If our political leaders think their brains can function well without sleep, then a bad message is being sent to truck drivers, marine pilots and even young drivers. The reality is that many individuals in critical industries and those involved in sustained operations are highly vulnerable to Barack-style all-nighters.

Countering the effects of sleep deficiency requires better technology measuring and predicting the brain’s response to sleep loss in real time even at roadside tests. Maybe these tools can be employed to keep us safe from sleepy politicos and errant decision-making.

With 10 days to go before an election, political campaigns are always going to be fast and furious. Obama’s best bet is to catch up on as much sleep on Air Force One as he can. Better to be sleep-wise than all-nighter foolish.

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