If the leaders of the 17 euro-area countries really want to solve the debt crisis shadowing their currency, they may want to sleep on it.
That’s not likely to happen. Of Europe’s last six summits, three ended no earlier than 4 a.m. The most recent, on June 29, ended at 5 a.m. And finance chiefs’ monthly gatherings routinely extend past midnight.
Those late hours haven’t served European leaders well and may be one reason why their next meeting, to hammer out a bailout for Spain’s banks on July 20, is scheduled to begin at noon. Lack of sleep, the evidence shows, has played a role in faulty decision-making that led to disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill as well as the ill-fated launch of the space shuttle Challenger.
“We’re not well designed to work well into the night,” Chris Idzikowski, a co-founder of the British Sleep Society who has explored the land of nod for more than three decades, said in an interview. “It has to be one of the worst times to do negotiations.”
Remaining awake too long mimics the effects of being legally drunk, according to recent research. Staying up past your natural bedtime can make you more vulnerable to another’s influence and likelier to take risks. It can impair brain function and lead to misjudgments.
European political leaders, then, may want to go to bed at a “normal” time, say between 10 p.m. and midnight, and let sleep do its job, said Idzikowski, who is director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre in Scotland. “The brain does think about solutions during sleep,” particularly during rapid-eye movement, or REM, sleep, a phase associated with learning, memory and dreaming.
Sleep is as necessary to life as eating or breathing. The first study of long-term sleep deprivation was published more than a century ago, and interest in research increased during the two world wars, as scientists sought ways to make workers more productive and radar operators more attentive.
Scientists are still trying to explain the effects of sleep loss on the brain, with funding from industries that operate around the clock, such as transportation and the military. That research is becoming more important as both work hours and commuting times grow, and improvements in functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, are enabling scientists to more quickly conduct these experiments.
“New pictures of the brain have only been possible in recent years,” says James Maas, who taught psychology for 48 years at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “The brain had been kind of a black box.”
How many Z’s people require depends on genetics and environment, says Maas, who coined the term “power nap” and has consulted for companies including IBM Corp. (IBM) Most adults should sleep between 7 1/2 and 8 1/2 hours a night, though a few can get by on less and some need more, Maas says. About 70 percent of adults are sleep-deprived, he says.
In people awake for 16 hours, Maas says brain activity is similar to that of someone with a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 percent, which is legally drunk in some jurisdictions. Staying awake for 24 hours is equivalent to having a blood-alcohol content of 0.10 percent -- exceeding the legal-intoxication limit in all countries involved in the talks.
“It takes a tremendous toll,” says Maas, who co-wrote the books Power Sleep and Sleep for Success! Everything You Must Know About Sleep but Are Too Tired to Ask.
Emotions can be one casualty of sleep loss, Maas says.
“Kids, when they’re sleep-deprived, they do indeed get cranky and cry,” he says. “Adults get wired. They get irrational, they get emotional, with symptoms similar to attention-deficit disorder. If you track mood during the day, around 4 to 5 p.m., people get really touchy,” and without a nap, it could be downhill from there.
European finance ministers met for 13 1/2 hours to hammer out a deal on a second Greek bailout, capping it with a press briefing that didn’t end until almost 6 a.m. on Feb. 21
“In the past two years and again this night, I have learned that ‘marathon’ is indeed a Greek word,” European Union Economic and Monetary Commissioner Olli Rehn said.
At the midnight briefing a month earlier, Rehn said: “The timing of this press conference seems to suggest that we are back in normal times.”
European leaders meet when they must, with no regard to considerations of comfort, said Guy Schuller, a spokesman for Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who also heads the group of euro-area finance chiefs.
“The issues at stake in a lot of these meetings are often bigger than the comfort of those sitting inside the meeting,” said Schuller said yesterday by phone. “Juncker has never ducked a meeting that ran late into the night and often he was the one to initiate such a late meeting.”
Losing a full night of sleep can impair a lot of brain function, said Scott Huettel, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Participating in a fast-moving meeting, such as a gathering of finance ministers, and having to respond to different people talking or toggle between conversations would be much more difficult, Huettel said.
While the brain is still able to process information, the information may be distorted before it’s processed, Huettel said. One night without sleep can lead to increased activity in the regions of the brain that weigh positive outcomes, and decreased activity in areas that assess negative outcomes, according to an fMRI study of 29 people by Huettel and his colleagues published in the Journal of Neuroscience last year.
“If you make someone more attentive to good outcomes and less attentive to bad outcomes, it will look like they’re more risk-seeking than they are,” Huettel said in a telephone interview.
The trial, funded in part by Singapore’s Defense Science and Technology Agency, was the first to show that sleep loss could change the way the brain determines economic value, making people more likely to make choices that increased monetary gain and less likely to select options that reduced loss, the Duke researchers said.
“The decisions someone makes depend on raw materials: what the good outcomes are, what the bad outcomes are, and then preferences for risk,” Huettel said. “Usually people say sleep deprivation makes people more impulsive. What we’re saying is it may change the way you view the raw materials.”
Not all brain functions are dulled by fatigue, according to Adrienne Tucker, a post-doctoral researcher who led a study that found performance in some areas may be enhanced. Participants were better at coming up with words beginning with a certain letter in one minute when they were tired, a test that measures verbal fluency and is a sign of flexible thinking, according to the study, which was published in the journal Sleep in 2010 and funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“It was a surprising finding,” Tucker said in a telephone interview. “The entire brain is deprived of sleep, so you’d think everything would be worse, but it’s not.”
A follow-up trial showed significant differences from person to person in how much their flexible thinking improved, Tucker said. Because there is little scientific data on how sleep-deprived people perform in a group setting, like the euro talks, it’s hard to say how lab results apply in the real world, and more research is needed, she said.
“The fact that the negotiations are occurring into the night likely changes the landscape of who has the most sway, as some people will be much more impacted by fatigue than others and, further, people will be impacted in different ways,” Tucker said. “One person might have more flexible and creative thinking, while another may become more rigid in rejecting offers perceived as unfair.”
At a meeting that began on the evening of Oct. 26, the European leaders summoned bankers at midnight to nail down a deal. Gathered in European Union President Herman Van Rompuy’s office, the bankers, represented by Charles Dallara, managing director of the Institute of International Finance, were given the ultimatum: Take the package that involved a 50 percent writedown of Greek debt or face worse consequences.
The politicians had their answer two hours later.
“It was the fiercely delivered wish by Merkel, Sarkozy, Juncker, that if a voluntary agreement with the banks was not possible, we wouldn’t resist one second to move toward a scenario of the total insolvency of Greece,” Juncker told reporters. That “would have cost states a lot of money and would have ruined the banks.”
With evidence pouring in that lack of sleep causes serious health and mental problems, why do people persist in pulling all-nighters? The answer is simple, Maas says: Ignorance.
“When the adrenaline is going, it seems like a good idea,” he says. “Why do we do a lot of things that are bad for us? There’s a lack of ability to convince people not to do it.”
The rush to get something done drove the leaders at their last summit through the night to 5 a.m. on June 29.
“There is something about nightlong negotiations,” one of the 17 euro-government chiefs told a small group of reporters. “You know that when you start the night you want to finish and get an accord at the end, because coming back to it in the morning is never a great solution. Merkel agreed to go ahead with the negotiations because almost everyone in the room knew we had to come up with an agreement for breakfast.”
Sometimes a lack of sleep does get the better of Europe’s leaders.
Queried about the fine points of the agreement June 29, European Commission President Jose Barroso told reporters, “I’m not going now into details; I slept less than three hours.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kristen Hallam in London at firstname.lastname@example.org
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