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Sleep Deprivation: Causes, Effects, and Solutions

  • Categories: Sleep Deprivation

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Published: Jan 30, 2024

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Causes of sleep deprivation, effects of sleep deprivation, solutions to sleep deprivation.

  • National Sleep Foundation. (2020). "Sleep Deprivation." Sleepfoundation.org. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-deprivation
  • Harvard Health Publishing. (2015). "Sleep and Disease Risk." Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-disease-risk
  • American Psychological Association. (2021). "The Big Sleep: Understanding Sleep Problems in Today's Society." apa.org. https://www.apa.org/topics/sleep-disorders

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How to write a 5 paragraph essay, openai prepares to launch web search feature for chatgpt, rivaling google and perplexity, the effects of a lack of sleep essay sample, example.

Nayeli Ellen

Drowsiness is a noticeable effect of a lack of sleep. In fact, it is quite dangerous, as according to WebMD, “Drowsiness can slow reaction time as much as driving drunk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that fatigue is a cause in 100,000 auto crashes and 1,550 crash-related deaths a year in the U.S. The problem is greatest among people under 25 years old” (Peri, Camille). Therefore, we have to be careful not to become sleepy during the day in order to not harm others.

In addition to regular drowsiness, we can experience microsleeps due to sleep deprivation. Once again, these occurrences are hazardous, as HealthLine states that, “During these episodes, you’ll fall asleep for a few seconds or minutes without realizing it. Microsleep is out of your control and can be extremely dangerous if you’re driving. It can also make you more prone to injury due to trips and falls” (“11 Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Body”). In order to avoid microsleep, you must get at least six hours of sleep a night.

In the same vein, concentration becomes more difficult with a lack of sleep. According to Healthline, “Sleep deprivation leaves your brain exhausted, so it can’t perform its duties as well. You may also find it more difficult to concentrate or learn new things. The signals your body sends may also come at a delay, decreasing your coordination skills and increasing your risks for accidents” (“11 Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Body”). A lack of concentration can also affect us seriously at work, where this function is often the name of the game.

With a lack of concentration can come impulsive behaviour. A study on the link between this characteristic and sleep deprivation noted that, “Patients with impulse control disorders often report sleep problems, and sleep deprivation even in healthy individuals impairs cognition, decision-making, and perhaps impulse control” (Acheson, A, et al.). In general, neglecting sleep can cause harmful, impulsive behaviour.

Not only does not getting enough sleep make us impulsive, but also not as smart. According to WebMD, “Sleep plays a critical role in thinking and learning. First, it impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. This makes it more difficult to learn efficiently” (Peri, Camille). So, if you want to learn and have all the engines firing up there, so to speak, it is best to sleep the minimum amount to perform well mentally.

Sometimes people wonder why they get sick so often. The reason might be that you are not sleeping enough. In fact, sleep deprivation has been linked to acquiring sickness easier through a deficiency in immunity. According to Healthline, “Sleep deprivation prevents your immune system from building up its forces. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body may not be able to fend off invaders. It may also take you longer to recover from illness” (“11 Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Body”). It is also known that long-term sleep deprivation causes one to be more prone towards getting diabetes and heart disease.

There are many other effects that could be listed when speaking about how a lack of sleep affects our well-being. However, these examples are the most apparent. Ponder them the next time you want to sleep less, or you have scheduled only a short time for sleep.

Works Cited

Peri, Camille. “10 Things to Hate About Sleep Loss.” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/10-results-sleep-loss.

“11 Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Body.” Healthline, Healthline Media, www.healthline.com/health/sleep-deprivation/effects-on-body#4.

Acheson, A, et al. “Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Impulsive Behaviors in Men and Women.” Physiology & Behavior., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Aug. 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17477941.

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Sleep Deprivation, Essay Example

Pages: 2

Words: 652

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In this discussion some important aspects of sleep deprivation will be highlighted. They include explorations into the effects of sleep deprivation; when someone becomes tired what are the consequences, how it will affect one’s sleeping pattern, some causes of sleep disturbances and how to improve the quality of sleep.


Lack of sleep affects the body in many ways yet people allow themselves to be deprived of it. Ten serious consequences of sleep deprivation include the potential of getting into accidents, which could cause loss of life along with those of others.  Studies show where people who work in factories tend to become injured due to sleep loss. With respect to danger on the body lack of sleep first manifests as thinking difficulties, which contribute to accidents. Essentially, people are less alert because energy levels fall. The body needs sleep to build red blood cells. This is responsible for many effects of sleep deprivation on the body. Sleep cycles are important for replenishing mental energy. Besides, concentrating and learning is impaired (Smith, Robinson,  & Segal, 2011).

Among other adverse effects on the body are the risks for heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, irregular heart rhythm along with loss of sexual appetite. Studies show that 90% of persons with sleep deprivation ultimately suffer from insomnia, which leads to depression and an aging skin tone. Later the reaction could lead to either weight loss or excessive weight gain. More importantly, studies reveal that lack of sleep hastens death through cardio vascular disease (Pilcher  & Huffcutt, 2015).

Tiredness severely affects the desire to sleep. Scientists have defined perpetual tiredness as chronic fatigue syndrome. Researchers are aware that fatigue and tiredness do affect sleep desire, but distinct characteristic relating the two variables have not been clearly understood. The body’s sleep mechanism requires some measure of relaxation of body and mind. When someone is tired the body and mind are tense and the mechanism required to activate sleep is inhibited. This is why doctors prescribe tranquilizers to initiate sleep in cases when tiredness overtakes the individual (Pilcher & Huffcutt, 2015).

One cause of sleep deprivation is alcohol consumption. Scientists contend that the glass of wine some people think that they need before going to bed can be very dangerous. The initial effect of alcohol might be the desire to sleep, but after that feeling subsides the sleep difficulty emerges. Scientists contend that the body breaks down alcohol as any substance it receives. As this happens the initial stimulating effect rebounds preventing deeper stages of sleep to occur. Bedtime snack is another reason for preventing sleep. When the stomach is supposed to rest a bed time snack causes it to work producing tiredness and withholding sleep (Pilcher  & Huffcutt, 2015).

The question is now asked what can be done to improve sleep qualities. They range from therapies to medication depending on the underlying cause of sleep loss. Some peope just feel compelled not to sleep thinking that either they are disturbed. Others have trained themselves into a routine of taking less than the required amount needed for their bodies. These persons would require therapeutic interventions (Graci & Hardie, 2007).  Others who are deprived due to pain or depression would need medication in resolving the problem. Besides, it is advised to avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, which inhibit sleep or limit your exposure to toxic chemicals (Ramakrishnan & Scheid, 2007).

Graci, G., & Hardie, J. (2007). Evidenced-Based Hypnotherapy for the Management of Sleep Disorders. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis 55 (3): 288–302

Ramakrishnan, K., & Scheid, D. (2007). Treatment options for insomnia. American family physician 76 (4): 517–526

Smith, M.  Robinson, L., & Segal, R. (2011). Sleep Disorders and Sleeping Problems.  NINDS Narcolepsy .

Pilcher, J., & Huffcutt, A (2015). Effects Of Sleep Deprivation On Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Sleep , 19(4); 12 -22.

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A Systematic Review of Sleep Deprivation and Neurobehavioral Function in Young Adults

Stephanie griggs.

Case Western Reserve University, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Cleveland, Ohio, USA 44106

Alison Harper

Case Western Reserve University, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Department of Anthropology, Cleveland, Ohio, USA 44106

Ronald L. Hickman, Jr

Ruth M. Anderson Endowed Professor of Nursing and Associate Dean for Research Case Western Reserve University, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Cleveland, OH, USA 44106

To examine the effect of sleep deprivation (total and partial) on neurobehavioral function compared to a healthy sleep opportunity (7–9 hours) in young adults 18–30 years.


More than one-third of young adults are sleep deprived, which negatively affects a range of neurobehavioral functions, including psychomotor vigilance performance (cognitive), affect, and daytime sleepiness.

A systematic review of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on sleep deprivation and neurobehavioral function. Multiple electronic databases (Cochrane Central Registry of Controlled Trials [CENTRAL], PubMed, PsycINFO, CINAHL, and Web of Science) were searched for relevant RCTs published in English from the establishment of each database to December 31, 2020.

Nineteen RCTs were selected (N = 766, mean age = 23.7 ± 3.1 years; 44.8% female). Seven were between-person (5 were parallel-group designs and 2 had multiple arms), and 12 were within-person designs (9 were cross over and 3 used a Latin square approach). Total sleep deprivation had the strongest detrimental effect on psychomotor vigilance performance, with the largest effects on vigilance tasks in young adults in the included studies.


Acute sleep deprivation degrades multiple dimensions of neurobehavioral function including psychomotor vigilance performance, affect, and daytime sleepiness in young adults. The effect of chronic sleep deprivation on the developing brain and associated neurobehavioral functions in young adults remains unclear.

1. Introduction

Sleep loss has a negative effect on multiple neurobehavioral functions, such as psychomotor vigilance performance (cognitive), daytime sleepiness, and affect ( Franzen et al., 2011 ; Van Dongen et al., 2003 ). Degradation of vigilance following sleep deprivation is one of the most robust alterations in healthy young adults aged 18–30 years ( Lim & Dinges, 2010 ). Multiple dimensions of neurobehavioral impairment are differentially affected by sleep deprivation ( Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). Sleep deprivation affects regions of the prefrontal cortex ( Chee & Choo, 2004 ), which continues to mature up to the late ‘20s ( Johnson et al., 2009 ), leading to executive dysfunctions with the prefrontal cortex ( Dinges et al., 1997 ; Nilsson et al., 2005 ). The prefrontal cortex is most vulnerable to the effects between states of sleep and wake due to the metabolic change associated with sleep deprivation ( Muzur et al., 2002 ).

Biological, social, and environmental factors converge, resulting in sleep deprivation in more than one-third (32.3%) of young adults ( Peltzer & Pengpid, 2016 ). Sleep deprivation contributes to a negative interaction between homeostatic and circadian processes. In young adulthood, there is reduced homeostatic sleep pressure (adenosine) accumulation during wakefulness, a delay in sleep timing, and a delay in releasing the onset of melatonin that peaks in the mid-’20s ( Crowley & Carskadon, 2010 ; Fischer et al., 2017 ). Motor vehicular accident risk increases at the circadian cycle nadir following total sleep deprivation which, correlates with slowing of psychomotor vigilance performance ( Patanaik, Zagorodnov, Kwoh, et al., 2014 ).

The broad effect of sleep manipulation (sleep deprivation, sleep restriction, and sleep improvement) on cognitive functioning in adolescents aged 10 – 19 years was addressed in one previous systematic review ( de Bruin et al., 2017 ). In the systematic review, the effect of total sleep deprivation was examined in 4 studies, partial sleep deprivation in 10 studies, sleep extension in one study, and cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia in one study and 45 unique cognitive tests were reported where a vast array of cognition was assessed ( de Bruin et al., 2017 ). In the review, partial sleep deprivation had a small or no effect on cognitive functioning, total sleep deprivation negatively affected psychomotor vigilance performance, and sleep extension improved working memory in the adolescents studied ( de Bruin et al., 2017 ). However, conclusions could not be made about the specific domains affected by sleep manipulation due to the differences and quantity of tests ( de Bruin et al., 2017 ). The extent of the associations between total and partial sleep deprivation and neurobehavioral impairment (e.g., decrements in psychomotor vigilance performance – cognitive performance impairment, affect, and daytime sleepiness) remains unclear.

The primary aim of this research was to determine the effect of sleep deprivation compared to healthy sleep opportunity (sleep duration 7–9 hours) on psychomotor vigilance performance as measured by psychomotor vigilance testing (PVT) only. PVT-related outcomes may include mean and median response time, reciprocal response time slowest 10%, mean reaction time fastest 10%, number of lapses (No. of times RT is > 500 ms lapses). The secondary aim of this research was to determine the effect of sleep deprivation on affect or daytime sleepiness compared to a healthy sleep opportunity. Secondary outcomes were change in affect or daytime sleepiness outcomes measured by diagnostic criteria or self-reported questionnaires.

Our focus is on young adults aged 18 to 30 years who are at a key developmental stage at a great risk of sleep deprivation and sleep deprivation-related neurobehavioral impairment. This focus addresses a significant gap in the existing literature. Additionally, the focus on sleep deprivation with a primary outcome of psychomotor vigilance performance to assess cognitive performance via psychomotor vigilance testing, a proven assay for evaluating vigilance ( Dinges et al., 2004 ), will allow a common outcome to be synthesized across studies.

2.1. Design

The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses Statement guidelines were followed for this systematic review ( Nagendrababu et al., 2019 ). We registered our protocol with the PROSPERO registry before implementing the search in the International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews (Prospero; registration number CRD42021225200).

2.2. Search methods

Studies with participants between the ages of 18 to 30 years were included. Sampling adults across the lifespan has a great potential to underestimate the effects of sleep deprivation in young adults. The following studies were included in this systematic review: (1) randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of young adults published in English; (2) data collected for both the intervention and control group(s); (3) sample mean age from 18 to 30 years; and (4) one or more objectively measured neurobehavioral-related outcomes (e.g., mean reaction time, median reaction time, reciprocal response time slowest 10%, mean reaction time fastest 10%, number of lapses (No. of times RT is > 500 ms lapses) by psychomotor vigilance testing only. Additionally, affect or daytime sleepiness outcomes were also extracted if available. We excluded studies of people with: (1) known sleep disorders; (2) chronic medical; (3) severe psychiatric illness (e.g., bipolar disorder, schizophrenia); (4) Body Mass Index (BMI) > 35 kg/m 2 in addition to (5) night shift workers.

The following databases were searched with controlled vocabulary and keywords: Cochrane Central Registry of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), PubMed, PsycINFO, CINAHL, and Web of Science. Articles published in English from the establishment of each database to December 13, 2020 were searched. We provide the PubMed search terms in Table 1 . We adjusted the syntax for the search strategies for each database as appropriate.

Database: PubMed ALL Search Strategy

The search was conducted under the guidance of a health science librarian with input from the primary and senior investigator. Also, an ancestry/bibliographic search was conducted to identify additional articles until the end of December 2020.

2.3. Search outcome

All 4,149 references were imported to Covidence ™ (Veritas Health Information) and duplicates were removed. A total of 3,110 were screened through Covidence ™ . Two reviewers independently screened all titles and abstracts with 93% agreement. Next, the two reviewers independently assessed full texts. A third reviewer resolved any disagreements regarding eligibility when consensus was not reached among the first two reviewers. The largest study was included when more than one article included the same trial and/or participants.

2.4. Quality appraisal

The risk of bias in the included studies was assessed independently by two reviewers using the Cochrane risk of bias tool through Covidence ™ ( Jørgensen et al., 2016 ). Sequence generation, concealment of allocation, blinding of outcome assessment blinding, >80% incomplete outcome data (< 80%), selective reporting of outcomes, and ‘other issues’ were the components of the risk of bias tool. The blinding domain was omitted as the intervention was sleep deprivation, and thus it would not be possible to blind participants.

2.5. Data abstraction and synthesis

A customized spreadsheet was used to extract and record data from the papers. Study characteristics, total or partial sleep deprivation with hours and length of time, age, measures used, the sample size (intervention and control groups), along with means and standard deviations of data were extracted. We contacted corresponding authors when insufficient or unclear data were reported. Extracted data were compared between the two reviewers, and disagreements were resolved by consultation with data in original papers and discussion.

We followed guidance on the conduct of a narrative synthesis described by Popay et al. (2006) . Three standardized data tables were used to organize the data which included (1) all studies, (2) between-persons designs, and (3) within-person designs. We started with a preliminary synthesis to organize findings from the studies to describe patterns along with direction and size of the effect when effects were reported. Next, we explored relationships considering factors that might explain any differences in significance or direction/size of the effect if applicable. Lastly, we assessed the robustness of the synthesis to draw conclusions and assess generalizability/reproducibility of the findings. Significant PVT outcomes and the effect size if applicable are presented in Table 2 . The between-person and within-person designs were considered and described separately as within-person comparisons have the advantage of a smaller within-person variation and possibility of a carryover effect ( Jones & Kenward, 2014 ).

Characteristics of studies

Note: ACT, actigraphy; PSG, polysomnography; TSD, total sleep deprivation; PSD, partial sleep deprivation; Lab, controlled setting; 1:1 parallel group design; multi-arm, more than two experimental conditions - only the TSD condition is listed on the table when the study has multiple arms; NR: not reported. All studies were randomized controlled trials. Data from two studies are presented in one article.

3.1. Study selection

We identified 19 RCTs and present results below. We contacted seven corresponding authors; two responded, one shared additional data, and one provided additional clarification on their data. The study selection process is illustrated in Figure 1 .

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PRISMA Flow Diagram

3.2. Characteristics of the included studies

A summary of the details of the 19 RCTs included in this systematic review is presented in Table 2 . A total of 766 young adults with mean ages ranging from 20.2 to 27.5 years (mean age, 23.7 ± 3.09 years; 55.2% male) were included in these RCTs. BMI was only reported in one trial, and the mean was 20.0 ± 1.9 kg/m 2 . Seven were between-person (5 were parallel-group designs and 2 had multiple arms), and 12 were within-person designs (9 were cross over and 3 used a Latin square approach).

Sleep was measured via polysomnography in 9 studies and with actigraphy in eight studies ( Table 2 ). The setting for a majority of these studies was a controlled laboratory (e.g., temperature, sound, avoidance of alcohol and caffeine) except for four studies ( Kaida & Niki, 2014 ; Rossa et al., 2014 ; Schwarz et al., 2016 ; Schwarz et al., 2013 ). The RCTs were conducted in the following countries: the United States (8), Italy (2), Finland (1), Australia (1), Japan (1), South China (1), Singapore (2), Canada (1), and Germany (2). All RCTs had a sleep deprivation experimental condition (15 were total sleep deprivation ranging from 24 hours to 72 hours and four were partial sleep deprivation of 4-hours per night ranging from one night to four nights) and a healthy sleep opportunity (duration of 7–9 hours) comparison condition.

The dose-response effect of total and partial sleep deprivation on psychomotor vigilance performance was examined in three different RCTs ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Jewett et al., 1999 ; Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). Acute sleep deprivation was assessed in two trials ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Jewett et al., 1999 ) and chronic sleep deprivation in the other trial ( Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). All trials had one 8-hour condition and one total sleep deprivation condition, but total sleep deprivation varied in each of the trials and was for one night in one trial ( Jewett et al., 1999 ), two nights in the second trial ( Drake et al., 2001 ), and three nights in the third trial ( Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). The comparison groups also varied in dose and length with 8-hours, 5-hours, or 2-hours for one night ( Jewett et al., 1999 ); 8-hours for four nights, 6-hours for four nights, and 4-hours for two nights ( Drake et al., 2001 ); and 8-hours, 6-hours, or 4-hours per night for 14 nights ( Van Dongen et al., 2004 ).

The daytime sleepiness measures used in the trials included a 9-item self-report Karolinska Sleepiness Scale ( Akerstedt & Gillberg, 1990 ), 7-item self-report Stanford Sleepiness Scale ( Babkoff et al., 1991 ), a visual analogue scale ( Monk, 1989 ), and objective pupillography as a physiological daytime sleepiness indicator ( Lüdtke et al., 1998 ). The affect measures included the 10-item positive and negative affect schedule (PANAS) ( Watson et al., 1988 ), 100mm visual analogue profile of mood states (POMS) ( McNair et al., 1971 ), and visual analogue scale ( Tempesta et al., 2014 ).

3.3. Risk of bias

A graph summarizing the risk of bias of the included studies is presented in Table 3 and Figure 2 . We determined that a majority of the studies were of high quality, with an overall low risk of bias ( n = 8). Sequence generation was judged six times to be both low and high risk, as allocation of the participants was low risk, but the time in between the sleep deprivation trial and the control condition for cross-over studies was only a week; therefore, there was a high likelihood of carryover effects from sleep deprivation. Incomplete outcome data was unclear in 6 trials, and selective outcome reporting was unclear in one. Selective outcome reporting was determined to be both low risk and high risk as it was low risk for objective measures but high risk for self-reported measures like affect and daytime sleepiness. Other source of bias was high risk in four studies due to the trials being held outside of a controlled laboratory setting.

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Cochrane Risk of Bias Assessment Across Studies (Higgins et al., 2011)

Cochrane Risk of Bias Assessment

3.4. Effect of sleep deprivation by outcome

3.4.1. effect of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance.

The effect of total sleep deprivation on cognitive performance was tested in 6 RCT’s using a between-person comparison ( n = 272); four were parallel-group ( Esposito et al., 2015 ; Franzen et al., 2008 ; Tucker et al., 2009 ; Whitney et al., 2015 ) and two had multiple-arms ( Jewett et al., 1999 ; Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). In these RCTs, the total sleep deprivation condition ranged from 24 hours to 72 hours, and all trials had a healthy sleep opportunity condition for comparison. Significant declines in psychomotor vigilance performance were observed in all trials using a between-person comparison with a slower mean reaction time in three trials ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Esposito et al., 2015 ; Tucker et al., 2009 ; Van Dongen et al., 2004 ), increased slowest 10% in one trial ( Esposito et al., 2015 ), and a higher number of lapses in four trials ( Esposito et al., 2015 ; Franzen et al., 2008 ; Haavisto et al., 2010 ; Whitney et al., 2015 ). The effect sizes ranged from small ( Franzen et al., 2008 ) to medium ( Whitney et al., 2015 ) and were not reported in four between-person comparison trials ( Esposito et al., 2015 ; Haavisto et al., 2010 ; Jewett et al., 1999 ; Tucker et al., 2009 ). In Haavisto’s trial of 20 young adults comparing 4 hours of partial sleep deprivation ( n = 13) to healthy sleep opportunity ( n = 7), lapses increased significantly for the partial sleep deprivation group compared to the healthy sleep opportunity group (0.92 ± 0.73 to 3.54 ± 0.73 vs. 0.62 ± 1.00 to 0.90 ± 1.00, p = .0321, respectively) and there was a tendency that the slowest 10% of all responses were slower in the partial sleep deprivation group, but the group difference was not significant ( p = .16) ( Haavisto et al., 2010 ).

The effect of total sleep deprivation on psychomotor vigilance performance was tested in nine RCT’s using a within-person comparison ( n = 375) ( Kaida & Niki, 2014 ; Lin et al., 2020 ; Patanaik, Zagorodnov, Kwoh, et al., 2014 ; Robillard et al., 2011 ; Rossa et al., 2014 ; Schwarz et al., 2016 ; Schwarz et al., 2013 ; Tempesta et al., 2014 ; Yeo et al., 2015 ), three of which used a Latin square approach ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Honn et al., 2020 ). Total sleep deprivation ranged from 32 to 62 hours, and the cross-over between the sleep deprivation and healthy sleep opportunity conditions ranged from one week to one month. One night of total sleep deprivation resulted in significant decrements in psychomotor vigilance performance in four of the cross-over trials ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Kaida & Niki, 2014 ; Patanaik, Zagorodnov, Kwoh, et al., 2014 ; Robillard et al., 2011 ) with a slower mean reaction time in four trials ( Adler et al., 2017 ; Drake et al., 2001 ; Kaida & Niki, 2014 ; Patanaik, Zagorodnov, Kwoh, et al., 2014 ; Robillard et al., 2011 ), slower median reaction time in two of the trials ( Kaida & Niki, 2014 ; Patanaik, Zagorodnov, Kwoh, et al., 2014 ), and a higher number of lapses in two of the trials ( Lin et al., 2020 ; Patanaik, Zagorodnov, Kwoh, et al., 2014 ).

The difference was not significant between the total sleep deprivation and healthy sleep opportunity condition in Tempesta et al. 2014 ’s cross-over trial of 25 young adults (mean age 23.8 ± 2.4 years). In this trial, a 5-minute PVT on a computer was used when a 10-minute PVT was used in most studies which may have affected these outcomes ( Tempesta et al., 2014 ). The reaction time was slower in the sleep deprivation condition in one trial; however, whether the difference between the two conditions was significant was not reported as the focus of the analysis was not on change in PVT performance ( Honn et al., 2020 ). In the cross-over trials where significant decrements in psychomotor vigilance performance from total sleep deprivation were reported, effect sizes ranged from medium ( Rossa et al., 2014 ) to large ( Lin et al., 2020 ). The effect size was not reported in four trials ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Kaida & Niki, 2014 ; Patanaik, Zagorodnov, Kwoh, et al., 2014 ; Robillard et al., 2011 ). Differences in age and sex were not discussed in all but two studies reported in one paper ( Honn et al., 2020 ), where no significant group differences in age or sex were found (p = 0.24 and 0.26 respectively).

3.4.2. Dose-response effects on cognitive performance from sleep deprivation

The dose-response effect of sleep deprivation on psychomotor vigilance performance was tested in 3 RCTs ( n = 121) ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Jewett et al., 1999 ; Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). Greater psychomotor vigilance performance impairment was observed in all three trials with larger doses of sleep deprivation ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Jewett et al., 1999 ). In Jewett’s trial of 61 young adults (0-hours, 2-hours, 5-hours, or 8-hours for one night), all PVT metrics improved as sleep duration increased ( p < .0002), particularly between the 0-hour and 2-hour sleep conditions; however, only a slight improvement was observed between the 5-hour and 8-hour sleep conditions with a 2.14-hour decay mean rate for all PVT metrics. Chronic sleep deprivation (8-hours, 6-hours, 4-hours – time in bed (TIB) per night for 14 nights) resulted in cumulative dose-dependent deficits in psychomotor vigilance performance, and daytime sleepiness showed an acute response but did not differentiate between the 6-hour and 4-hour conditions in Van Dongen’s trial of 48 young adults (mean age 26 ± 3.6 y). In this same trial, deficits in cognitive performance were equivalent between the chronic sleep deprivation of sleep to 6-hours or less per night over 10 nights and up to 2-nights of total sleep deprivation conditions ( Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). In Drake’s trial of 12 young adults using a Latin square design (no sleep loss-8 hours TIB for 4-nights; slow: 6-hours TIB hours for 4 nights; intermediate: 4-hours TIB for two nights; and rapid: 0-hours TIB for one night), higher impairment of cognitive performance impairment with rapid loss of sleep loss as opposed to when loss of sleep occurred or accumulated over time ( Drake et al., 2001 ). Also, alertness levels were lower in the 6-hour per night condition relative to the 8-hour condition in the same trial ( Drake et al., 2001 ). We present a dose response graph comparing pooled baseline to partial sleep deprivation conditions (6- and 4-hour sleep duration) and total sleep deprivation (0-hour sleep duration) mean reaction time as measured by the PVT over the days of monitoring in Figure 3 .

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Dose Response graph Note: 1 day = 24 hours; 0-hour time in bed is total sleep deprivation; 4 and 6-hour time in bed is partial sleep deprivation; and 8-hour time in bed is a healthy sleep opportunity.

3.4.3. Effect of sleep deprivation on daytime sleepiness

The effect of sleep deprivation on self-reported daytime sleepiness was assessed in 5 trials ( n = 135) using a between-person comparison ( Esposito et al., 2015 ; Franzen et al., 2008 ; Haavisto et al., 2010 ; Jewett et al., 1999 ; Van Dongen et al., 2004 ) and objective daytime sleepiness was additionally assessed in one of the trials ( Franzen et al., 2008 ). Trials of total sleep deprivation ( Esposito et al., 2015 ; Franzen et al., 2008 ; Jewett et al., 1999 ; Van Dongen et al., 2004 ) and partial sleep deprivation ( Haavisto et al., 2010 ) resulted in significantly higher daytime sleepiness ratings in the sleep deprivation as opposed to the healthy sleep opportunity conditions. In comparison to the PVT, the largest magnitude of effects were seen in all measures of daytime sleepiness (2 objective and 1 self-report) in Franzen et al. 2008 ’s trial of 29 young adults following one night of total sleep deprivation ( n = 15) compared to a healthy sleep opportunity condition ( n = 14) (mean sleep latency test F = 25.08, p < .001, n 2 = 0.501, pupillary unrest test F = 11.58, p = .002, n 2 = 0.317, visual analogue scale F = 42.80, p <.001, n 2 = 0.631).

The effect of total sleep deprivation on self-reported daytime sleepiness was assessed in 4 cross-over trials ( Lin et al., 2020 ; Patanaik, Zagorodnov, Kwoh, et al., 2014 ; Tempesta et al., 2014 ; Yeo et al., 2015 ). Results were not reported in 3 trials ( Patanaik, Zagorodnov, & Kwoh, 2014 ; Tempesta et al., 2014 ; Yeo et al., 2015 ). The effect of one night of total sleep deprivation on self-reported daytime sleepiness was only significant in one of the cross-over trials (F 1,28.95 = 103.09; p < 0.01) ( Tempesta et al., 2014 ); whereas a marginal increase in daytime sleepiness was noted in the other cross-over trial, but the effect was not significant ( t = −1.890, p = 0.071, Cohen’s d = −0.39) ( Lin et al., 2020 ). On the other hand, the effect of partial sleep deprivation (4-hours for one night) on self-reported daytime sleepiness relative to healthy sleep opportunity was significant in 3 cross-over trials with a medium effect size ( Rossa et al., 2014 ; Schwarz et al., 2016 ; Schwarz et al., 2013 ). Also, the partial sleep deprivation as opposed to the healthy sleep opportunity condition displayed higher objective daytime sleepiness via the pupillary unrest test (5.7 ± 2.1 vs. 4.5 ± 2.1 mm/min, p = .002) with a medium effect size (Cohen’s d = 0.55) ( Schwarz et al., 2016 ).

3.4.4. Effect of sleep deprivation on affect

The effect of sleep deprivation on affect was only assessed in one trial using a between persons comparison ( Franzen et al., 2008 ). Those in the total sleep deprivation condition (n = 14) as opposed to the healthy sleep opportunity condition (n = 15) had a higher negative mood ( F = 4.76, p = .039), lower positive affect ( F = 4.78, p = .038), but the change in negative affect was not significant ( F = 1.74, p = .20) ( Franzen et al., 2008 ).

The effect of sleep deprivation on affect was assessed in 5 RCTs using a within-person comparison ( n = 178) ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Kaida & Niki, 2014 ; Lin et al., 2020 ; Rossa et al., 2014 ; Tempesta et al., 2014 ). The effect of one night of total sleep deprivation resulted in a significant negative effect on affect in 3 trials relative to the healthy sleep opportunity condition ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Kaida & Niki, 2014 ; Lin et al., 2020 ). Compared to a healthy sleep opportunity, both positive affect and negative affect were significantly reduced when participants were totally sleep deprived in one cross-over trial ( Lin et al., 2020 ) and partially sleep-deprived (4-hours one night) in another cross over trial ( Rossa et al., 2014 ). The effect size was small in the partial-sleep deprivation cross over trial ( Rossa et al., 2014 ), medium in one of the total sleep deprivation cross-over trials (Cohen’s d = 0.51) ( Lin et al., 2020 ), and not reported in the other two trials ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Kaida & Niki, 2014 ). Lastly, there was a significant interaction between sleep loss and negative affect in working memory performance, but not with PVT performance in Tempesta et al. (2014) ‘s cross-over trial of 25 young adults.

4. Discussion

In this systematic review, the effect of sleep deprivation on neurobehavioral functioning (psychomotor vigilance performance, affect, and daytime sleepiness) in young adults was examined. The primary aim of this study was to examine the effect of sleep deprivation on psychomotor vigilance performance. The largest effects with significant decrements on the most PVT metrics were found in total sleep deprivation studies ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Esposito et al., 2015 ; Franzen et al., 2008 ; Honn et al., 2020 ; Jewett et al., 1999 ; Kaida & Niki, 2014 ; Lin et al., 2020 ; Patanaik, Zagorodnov, Kwoh, et al., 2014 ; Robillard et al., 2011 ; Tempesta et al., 2014 ; Tucker et al., 2009 ; Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). There was a dose-response relationship between the rate of sleep loss and psychomotor vigilance performance measured via PVT. Also, adaptation occurred with a slower accumulation of sleep loss ( Drake et al., 2001 ; Jewett et al., 1999 ; Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). The short time constant that was observed in one of the trials (0h to 2h conditions) ( Jewett et al., 1999 ) indicates that the first few hours of sleep may serve to restore psychomotor vigilance decrements following sleep deprivation. This may partially explain why a nap affords recovery disproportionate to its duration ( Jewett et al., 1999 ).

The second aim of this systematic review was to determine how sleep deprivation affected daytime sleepiness. Daytime sleepiness was measured via self-report in a majority of the trials with the Karolinska Sleepiness Test or Stanford Sleepiness Test and objectively with the Multiple Sleep Latency Test and Pupillary Unrest Index ( Lüdtke et al., 1998 ) in two trials ( Franzen et al., 2008 ; Schwarz et al., 2016 ). Most of the trials included acute sleep deprivation, however in the trial where partial sleep deprivation was examined over 14-days ( Van Dongen et al., 2004 ), chronic partial sleep deprivation of 4 – 6 hours resulted in an initial elevation of self-report ratings on both the Stanford Sleepiness Scale and Karolinska Sleepiness Scale, but as the study progressed only minor further increases in self-report daytime sleepiness that did not mirror the decrements in PVT performance were observed. Even at the end of the 14 days, participants only reported feeling slightly sleepy ( Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). This suggests that there is an adaptation to chronic partial sleep deprivation especially considering the chronic partial sleep deprivation condition was compared to a total sleep deprivation condition ruling out the potential for a ceiling effect as the total sleep deprivation condition showed considerably greater levels of daytime sleepiness after two nights ( Van Dongen et al., 2004 ). Another consideration when assessing daytime sleepiness is that it might be intertwined with affect and related to the same latent construct making it difficult to differentiate perceptions of daytime sleepiness from mood; therefore, it is warranted to include physiologic measures more sensitive than self-report measures as suggested by Franzen et al, 2008 .

Regarding our final aim to determine the effect of sleep deprivation on affect, it must be highlighted that affect was only assessed in one-third of the studies. Also, the designs and instruments to measure affect varied, making it difficult to draw conclusions. Nonetheless, both partial and total sleep deprivation conditions resulted in worsened affect in the young adults in the selected studies, which is consistent with other young adult and adolescent studies ( Baum et al., 2014 ; Franzen et al., 2008 ; Haavisto et al., 2010 ). Studies where objective physiological and/or neural measures of affect were assessed provide additional verification of the emotional dysregulation following sleep deprivation. This was demonstrated in two of the trials in the current review with additional measures of pupillary affective response ( Franzen et al., 2008 ; Schwarz et al., 2016 ). In previous research, a 60% amplification in reactivity of the amygdala assessed using functional MRI (fMRI) was observed following one night of total sleep deprivation (n = 14) in response to negative pictures triggering emotions, when compared to a healthy sleep opportunity condition ( n = 12) ( Yoo et al., 2007 ).


There are some limitations of this systematic review that should be considered. First, regarding sample characteristics, we included individuals free of medical, psychiatric, and sleep disorders with previous healthy weight and sleep schedules, limiting the generalizability of these findings. Second, although psychomotor vigilance performance was a common outcome across studies, only 6 used a parallel-group design, and with a lack of baseline and outcome data reporting, we could not conduct a meta-analysis. Baseline and some post-intervention values were not available to calculate mean change in these studies, so our results are fully based on a narrative review. Third, although outcomes were common via the PVT, the heterogeneity across designs, analyses, and objectives made the synthesis and analysis difficult. We recommend more transparent data reporting in the future, particularly through the inclusion of baseline data. This would allow for meta-analyses to be performed in the future, allowing the effects to be pooled to advance the science. Also, because of the different designs and analyses, a determination about reproducibility could not be made.

Objective assessments and physiologic measures (e.g., the Multiple Sleep Latency test and Pupillary Unrest Index) were more precise and sensitive, which may have affected the self-reported daytime sleepiness and affective outcomes. A larger effect size was reported for the physiologic measures (daytime sleepiness and affect regulation) as opposed to the self-report mood and PVT outcomes in one of the trials ( Franzen et al., 2008 ).

5. Conclusions

We determined that sleep deprivation degrades young adults’ neurobehavioral functioning. These results are congruent with adult and adolescent studies, where total sleep deprivation (as opposed to partial sleep deprivation) has a substantial detrimental effect on psychomotor vigilance performance, with the largest effects for vigilance tasks ( de Bruin et al., 2017 ; Lim & Dinges, 2010 ). The studies were all based on acute sleep deprivation, so it was not possible to determine if psychomotor vigilance deficits accumulate over time during chronic sleep deprivation, which is most consistent with real-world settings ( Goel et al., 2009 ). This is important as young adult brains are sensitive to sleep loss, as indicated by imaging studies examining the prefrontal cortex ( Chee & Choo, 2004 ). There is considerable evidence that the prefrontal cortex continues to develop into early adulthood which may affect speed of performance on psychomotor vigilance tasks, although this association has not been examined longitudinally ( Chee & Choo, 2004 ; Gied et al., 1999; Muzur et al., 2002 ). Thus, the effects of chronic sleep deprivation on the psychomotor vigilance performance of the developing brain remain unclear. Also, though our primary intention was to assess the effect of sleep deprivation on psychomotor vigilance performance via PVT, daytime sleepiness was only assessed in 10 and affect in 6 of the studies limiting the ability to comprehensively assess neurobehavioral function among young adults in the included studies.

The findings presented underscore the importance of measuring different neurobehavioral function metrics (e.g., psychomotor vigilance - cognitive performance via PVT, daytime sleepiness via self-report and objective measures, and affect) when studying their response to sleep and wakefulness. Larger RCTs that include an objective to examine the effect of sleep deprivation on neurobehavioral function under controlled conditions are needed to reveal predictors and negative effects of acute and chronic sleep deprivation in this high-risk group. Researchers should also consider including moderators (e.g., age, sex, dose) when these larger studies are available for meta-analysis. Nurses working across tertiary care and the community are well-positioned to take the lead on advocating for policies and practices promoting a healthy sleep opportunity and sleep education to optimize brain development in this age group.

  • Total and partial sleep deprivation lead to significant decrements in neurobehavioral function (cognitive performance, affect, and sleepiness) in young adults.
  • Adaptation to sleep loss can occur when it accumulates over time.
  • The focus of the current literature is on short term sleep loss limiting the ability to draw inference to real world settings where sleep loss occurs at a more stable state over time (e.g., chronic partial sleep deprivation).
  • The prefrontal cortex continues to develop until the late 20’s, thus the effects of sleep loss over time in the developing brain remain unclear.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of DG in screening for inclusion and assisting with quality assessment.

Funding Statement:

This work was supported by American Academy of Sleep Medicine Foundation (AASM), 220-BS-19 and the National Institute for Nursing Research (NINR), K99NR018886. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AASM Foundation or NIH.

Publisher's Disclaimer: This is a PDF file of an unedited manuscript that has been accepted for publication. As a service to our customers we are providing this early version of the manuscript. The manuscript will undergo copyediting, typesetting, and review of the resulting proof before it is published in its final form. Please note that during the production process errors may be discovered which could affect the content, and all legal disclaimers that apply to the journal pertain.

CRediT authorship contribution statement: Stephanie Griggs: Conceptualization, Methodology, Validation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Data Curation, Writing – original draft, Project administration, Funding acquisition. Alison Harper: Validation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Data Curation, Writing – original draft. Ronald L. Hickman: Supervision, Conceptualization, Methodology, Validation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Writing – review and editing, Project administration.

Declaration of competing interests: No conflict of interest has been declared by the authors.

Contributor Information

Stephanie Griggs, Case Western Reserve University, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Cleveland, Ohio, USA 44106.

Alison Harper, Case Western Reserve University, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Department of Anthropology, Cleveland, Ohio, USA 44106.

Ronald L. Hickman, Jr, Ruth M. Anderson Endowed Professor of Nursing and Associate Dean for Research Case Western Reserve University, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Cleveland, OH, USA 44106.

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Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency How Sleep Affects Your Health

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Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety.

How do I know if I’m not getting enough sleep?

Sleep deficiency can cause you to feel very tired during the day. You may not feel refreshed and alert when you wake up. Sleep deficiency also can interfere with work, school, driving, and social functioning.

How sleepy you feel during the day can help you figure out whether you're having symptoms of problem sleepiness.

You might be sleep deficient if you often feel like you could doze off while:

  • Sitting and reading or watching TV
  • Sitting still in a public place, such as a movie theater, meeting, or classroom
  • Riding in a car for an hour without stopping
  • Sitting and talking to someone
  • Sitting quietly after lunch
  • Sitting in traffic for a few minutes

Sleep deficiency can cause problems with learning, focusing, and reacting. You may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, remembering things, managing your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. You may take longer to finish tasks, have a slower reaction time, and make more mistakes.

Symptoms in children

The symptoms of sleep deficiency may differ between children and adults. Children who are sleep deficient might be overly active and have problems paying attention. They also might misbehave, and their school performance can suffer.

Sleep-deficient children may feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed, or lack motivation.

Sleep and your health

The way you feel while you're awake depends in part on what happens while you're sleeping. During sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function and support your physical health. In children and teens, sleep also helps support growth and development.

The damage from sleep deficiency can happen in an instant (such as a car crash), or it can harm you over time. For example, ongoing sleep deficiency can raise your risk of some chronic health problems. It also can affect how well you think, react, work, learn, and get along with others.

Mental health benefits

Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you're sleeping, your brain is getting ready for the next day. It's forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information.

Studies show that a good night's sleep improves learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative.

Studies also show that sleep deficiency changes activity in some parts of the brain. If you're sleep deficient, you may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency has also been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior.

Children and teens who are sleep deficient may have problems getting along with others. They may feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed, or lack motivation. They also may have problems paying attention, and they may get lower grades and feel stressed.

Physical health benefits

Sleep plays an important role in your physical health.

Good-quality sleep:

  • Heals and repairs your heart and blood vessels.
  • Helps support a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin): When you don't get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than when you're well-rested.
  • Affects how your body reacts to insulin: Insulin is the hormone that controls your blood glucose (sugar) level. Sleep deficiency results in a higher-than-normal blood sugar level, which may raise your risk of diabetes.
  • Supports healthy growth and development: Deep sleep triggers the body to release the hormone that promotes normal growth in children and teens. This hormone also boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in children, teens, and adults. Sleep also plays a role in puberty and fertility.
  • Affects your body’s ability to fight germs and sickness: Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way your body’s natural defense against germs and sickness responds. For example, if you're sleep deficient, you may have trouble fighting common infections.
  • Decreases   your risk of health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and stroke.

Research for Your Health

NHLBI-funded research found that adults who regularly get 7-8 hours of sleep a night have a lower risk of obesity and high blood pressure. Other NHLBI-funded research found that untreated sleep disorders rase the risk for heart problems and problems during pregnancy, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Daytime performance and safety

Getting enough quality sleep at the right times helps you function well throughout the day. People who are sleep deficient are less productive at work and school. They take longer to finish tasks, have a slower reaction time, and make more mistakes.

After several nights of losing sleep — even a loss of just 1 to 2 hours per night — your ability to function suffers as if you haven't slept at all for a day or two.

Lack of sleep also may lead to microsleep. Microsleep refers to brief moments of sleep that happen when you're normally awake.

You can't control microsleep, and you might not be aware of it. For example, have you ever driven somewhere and then not remembered part of the trip? If so, you may have experienced microsleep.

Even if you're not driving, microsleep can affect how you function. If you're listening to a lecture, for example, you might miss some of the information or feel like you don't understand the point. You may have slept through part of the lecture and not realized it.

Some people aren't aware of the risks of sleep deficiency. In fact, they may not even realize that they're sleep deficient. Even with limited or poor-quality sleep, they may still think they can function well.

For example, sleepy drivers may feel able to drive. Yet studies show that sleep deficiency harms your driving ability as much or more than being drunk. It's estimated that driver sleepiness is a factor in about 100,000 car accidents each year, resulting in about 1,500 deaths.

Drivers aren't the only ones affected by sleep deficiency. It can affect people in all lines of work, including healthcare workers, pilots, students, lawyers, mechanics, and assembly line workers.

Lung Health Basics: Sleep Fact Sheet

Lung Health Basics: Sleep

People with lung disease often have  trouble sleeping. Sleep is critical to overall health, so take the first step to sleeping better: learn these sleep terms, and find out about treatments that can help with sleep apnea.

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SpaceX’s facilities, including several prototype Starship rockets, behind a row of new homes in Boca Chica, Texas.

Opinion Guest Essay

Try Living in Elon Musk’s Company Town

Credit... Mike Osborne for The New York Times

Supported by

By Christopher Hooks

Photographs by Mike Osborne

Mr. Hooks is a writer based in Austin, Texas.

  • May 24, 2024

J ust after 7 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, as the sun was rising in the Gulf of Mexico, Noel Rangel, a 26-year-old native of Brownsville, Texas, was brought unwillingly into wakefulness by an uninvited sensation: The richest man in the world was shaking him. Or rather, his entire apartment. His bed was rumbling, his windows rattling. “I could hear the glass,” he said. He was confused. He woke as if Elon Musk himself had grabbed him by the shoulders.

Americans as a whole have become more familiar with the tax that powerful and erratic figures levy on people’s emotional and mental well-being. Though many very rich men fantasize about disconnecting from other humans — to go to space, or, in the case of the tech billionaire Peter Thiel, to create artificial cities in international waters — they are more desperate for social validation, not less. They need to inspire love or fear or awe.

Many people suspect that Donald Trump — though he denies it — ran for president in part because he was tired of being mocked so often. Jeff Bezos spent $42 million to build a mechanical clock under a West Texas mountain that is intended to last 10,000 years. Mr. Musk spent $44 billion of mostly other people’s money to buy Twitter, rebrand it as X and guarantee that he could continue to irritate people on a global scale.

For Mr. Rangel, what was figurative for others had become literal: When a tycoon stomps, the earth shakes. Mr. Musk’s company SpaceX had launched a new iteration of its Starship rocket about 25 miles away. That one didn’t blow up over his city as previous launches had. But Mr. Rangel still couldn’t go back to sleep. Across social media, some residents shared his irritation at being roused by a launch they did not realize was coming.

Their irritation was perhaps surprising. Brownsville has become something of a company town for SpaceX, its largest private employer, and the most high-profile firm in the commercial space industry right now. Its more than 13,000 employees build rockets, launch NASA astronauts on their journeys to the International Space Station, provide broadband internet via satellite and are working toward an ambitious goal to send people to Mars one day.

Murals glorifying the company dot Brownsville’s downtown, which has been spruced up with donations from Mr. Musk. Businesses have reoriented to serve space tourists who flock from all over the world to see his rockets up close. To some, Mr. Musk has given Brownsville, a particularly poor city of about 200,000 in a neglected part of Texas, a reason for being, a future. To others, he’s a colonizer, flirting with white nationalists online while exploiting a predominantly brown work force in one of Texas’ fringes.

A mural that shows Elon Musk and images of SpaceX’s Tesla roadster that was launched into space. The words “Boca Chica To Mars” are painted in white capital letters.

Those debates have been reported in dozens of articles about Brownsville in the last decade. I suspect the real reason journalists keep coming to the city is that it serves as a stand-in for debates about America’s increasingly plutocrat-based economy and culture. NASA’s decades-long solar research program is called Living With a Star, signifying respect for a neighbor that is all-powerful and unaccountable. Brownsville is accruing data for a project that you might call Living With Elon.

A community organizer in the city who opposes SpaceX’s intrusion into Brownsville, Bekah Hinojosa, told me at length about the material concerns she had — pollution, the cost of living, the fragile environment around the company’s launchpad. But Ms. Hinojosa’s core complaint was that her native city didn’t feel like it belonged to her anymore, and that it felt as though public officials were changing the city to become a center for space tourism. It was a kind of psychological burden. “It’s exhausting,” she said. “We are constantly being bombarded by Elon Musk and SpaceX news down here.” There was the ever-present threat that “Elon might show up to charro days, or sombrero fest,” she said, referring to some of the local festivals. Most of all, she wished simply to stop having to think about him so much.

In that sense, we’re all living in Brownsville now.

I live about 300 miles from Brownsville, in Austin, Texas, where Mr. Musk moved in 2020. His presence here is felt very strongly: Residents whisper about his social life, and his companies’ health affects the real estate market. In 2022, he bought the website formerly known as Twitter, where I am still, as a journalist, effectively required to spend a good portion of my time online. Mr. Musk’s presence made both places worse, a little cheaper, a little phonier. His promises always seemed to fall flat, both the trivial (he vowed to eradicate bots, but now X is filled with automated porn ) and the consequential (he vowed to make his Tesla factory in Austin an “ecological paradise” but is now fighting to exempt it from environmental regulations).

Around that time, I started to consider how much of my adult life had been intimately shaped by billionaires and the otherwise very wealthy. The answer, I realized, was all of it. For a decade I’ve written about Texas politics, which is almost all reducible to fights between plutocrats belonging to different factions. I was a stenographer recording the symptoms of feuds between powerful men I’d never meet. National politics was not much different. At some point, it became more important to follow Thiel and Robert Mercer than the speaker of the House. Billionaires ran the new media (Mr. Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page) and the old (Rupert Murdoch, the Sinclair family). My childhood newspaper, The Austin American-Statesman, was gutted by the mismanagement of the Cox family, descendants of old-school media barons, and then sold to hedge-fund vultures. The chaos they created was inseparable from the chaos I was writing about in politics.

For all their wealth and power, these figures generally seem maladjusted, unhappy and insecure. Maybe that is to be expected. In 2012, social scientists found that those driving more valuable cars were less likely to stop for pedestrians at a crosswalk. If that’s what a slightly nicer whip does to the human brain, what does ten thousand million dollars do? What strange ideas might you develop about yourself? Would you feel bound by conventional morality? Would anyone around you seem real?

Mr. Musk seems even more disconnected to the bonds that tie the rest of us. He has talked often of his suspicion that the world around us is a computer simulation, which seems less of a philosophical inquiry than an explanation of how far he feels from human connection. When one of his children came out as trans and it was reported that she no longer talked to her father, he said , “Can’t win them all.” He has reportedly discouraged workers at his injury-prone factories from wearing brightly colored safety vests because he thinks them aesthetically displeasing.

He rages against the haters, the doubters, the clods who don’t understand his brilliance. But his complaints prove that he needs admiration more than anything. I was an admirer once: He built electric cars and rocket ships, what wasn’t to like? But while he retains a devoted fan base, it doesn’t seem to be enough. He seems most alive on his social media website, a place where everyone seems a little bit sad.

I n Brownsville, though, Mr. Musk has in the real world what he can’t quite grasp online — a captive audience, and people who need him, both for the material benefits he provides and the vision he offers to the town. Though he has detractors too, they’re greatly outnumbered by those who feel positively about the company. In elections, there’s no real anti-SpaceX faction: The powers that be are generally quite hostile to those who, like the organizer Ms. Hinojosa, speak up.

One of Brownsville’s strongest believers in the Musk project is Jessica Tetreau, a former city commissioner who was at City Hall the day the company’s representatives first came to town in 2011. Ms. Tetreau had a “very hard childhood” in Brownsville in the 1980s and ’90s, she said, when it was a place with “very limited opportunities.” When she was 2, her father was laid off when a Union Carbide chemical plant closed. For the rest of her childhood, she says, he had to travel regularly to Texas City to work at another Union Carbide plant.

When SpaceX first pitched Brownsville on building the launch site, Ms. Tetreau said, most city officials didn’t seem to get it. They joked off-mic about which locals they’d most like to send into orbit. But she lit up, immediately understanding that this was a big deal, that Brownsville could be part of something that would save humanity by paving man’s road to the stars. Ms. Tetreau went all in. She bought her first Tesla in 2015. She bought her children Tesla Cybertruck toys to play with and SpaceX blankets to cover themselves with at night.

She recounts the material benefits of SpaceX. Her constituents got good-paying jobs — a welding position currently advertised at the Brownsville facility starts at $18 per hour — in a region where the ship breaking industry was previously a primary source of employment. Two years ago, the city’s mayor told reporters SpaceX employed 1,600 people , and its presence netted $885 million in gross economic output for the county. Brownsville public school students got to broaden their horizons in programs held at the SpaceX production facility. In 2021, Mr. Musk pledged $30 million to local schools and a downtown Brownsville rejuvenation program — a substantial sum that amounts to about 0.01 percent of his current net worth.

But no less a boon was the fact that Brownsville could wrap itself in Mr. Musk’s expansive, and spiritual, vision for the company: its mission to, as Ms. Tetreau says, “preserve humanity and extend consciousness” with human settlement of the solar system. If the city once lacked hope for a better future, it could now consider itself part of the grand progression of human civilization.

Protective of the dream, Ms. Tetreau responds stiffly to criticism of Mr. Musk. I ask her about a Reuters report that Brownsville SpaceX workers are being injured at a rate six times that of the industry average, in part because Mr. Musk discourages the traditional safety practices (which he reportedly finds inefficient). She responds that she “never heard of anybody getting hurt.” She says that in person, Mr. Musk is “actually very genuine and kind and a humble person.” She asks SpaceX’s critics in Brownsville to remember that he just may be saving the human race.

Though I never felt as strongly in Mr. Musk’s promise as Ms. Tetreau did, I think I understand it. In a way, I envy it, in the same way I envy friends who have a strong and sincere religious belief. In writing about politics, I am struck forcefully again and again by the desire most people have to be part of a grand story, an exciting narrative that gives meaning to their lives. We live in an age of declining religious belief and existential unrest. Mr. Musk is offering the public a chance to be part of his grand narrative. It’s a kindness.

Just like actual religious belief, Musk fandom has the tendency to cloud people’s minds. The belief he provides in “the future” comes at a cost. Where some amount of natural beauty in utilitarian Texas has been preserved to the present day, it is often simply because the land is not useful.

Boca Chica, the little beach and wilderness area east of Brownsville where SpaceX launches rockets, wasn’t useful to anybody until the company came around. The flat scrubland and low dunes around Starbase, the somewhat grandiose name the company has given its industrial processing facility and chemical tank farms, aren’t much to look at. The area’s main virtue is that it is physically isolated from human populations — inaccessible to tourist beach towns to the north because of the Brownsville Ship Channel, cut off from the south by the Rio Grande and the Mexican border, and half an hour’s drive to Brownsville, the largest nearby city.

But this isolation made it a special place. Sea turtles left eggs along the beach. Dolphins shelter in the Laguna Madre, north of the launch site. Wildcats like ocelots roam the land; the last confirmed local sighting of a jaguarundi occurred nearby in 1986, and they may still be there. Most of all, the area is one of the best places for birding in the United States. The wetlands and sheltered beaches provide a perfect stopover for sea birds and migratory birds, some of whom rely on Boca Chica Beach to breed.

In 2021 , I tagged along with Stephanie Bilodeau, a biologist whose job it was to count local bird populations at Boca Chica — particularly the snowy plover, a comically small shorebird that lays eggs the size of Ping-Pong balls in the Boca Chica underbrush. Snowy plover populations have been in decline. Another type of bird that rested in the area, the biologist explained, migrated annually from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle and back — navigating with methods no scientist had yet been able to figure out. This was a much more impressive accomplishment than anything Neil Armstrong had done, I remember thinking, never having paid much attention to birds before.

We sat in the rain near the launchpad’s parking area, filled with Teslas. The nests the biologist counted were in steep decline. The beach nearby was dotted with chunks of steel, left from a recent catastrophic launch attempt that ended in what the company calls a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Other failed launches and the normal operations of the facility may have dumped rocket fuel and industrial wastewater over the nearby wildlife refuge. I told Ms. Bilodeau that Mr. Musk had recently spoken about the possibility of bringing endangered species to Mars , letting them live on even if they went extinct at home. Did that seem feasible? “Probably not,” she said, looking defeated. I felt grateful for the work she did, and a bit sorry for her. She was like a village priest who keeps tidying the church as the years go by and the congregation thins.

M r. Musk has also seemed more defeated than usual lately, though it’s hard to say why. Partly, at least, it’s his mystification at the criticism he has received. “I’ve done more for the environment than any single human on earth,” he mopily told the New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin onstage at a DealBook conference in November. He had done capital-g Good, while his critics — in this case, those who were looking uneasily at his repeated affirmations of white nationalists and antisemites on the social media website he owned — only pretended to be good. (This was the interview in which Mr. Musk used a crude insult toward advertisers who pulled out of X because of his endorsement of antisemitic posts.)

Mr. Sorkin noted, in so many words, that Mr. Musk seemed sad, his mind stormy , that he seemed to be reaching for something he couldn’t grasp. In extended digressions that approximated a talk therapy session, Mr. Musk turned unprompted to SpaceX and seemed to suggest that it was a balm for the lack of meaning he perceived in the universe. “My motivation, then, was that well, my life is finite, really a flash in the pan, on a galactic time scale, but if we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness … maybe we can find out the meaning of life,” he said. As an example of the excitement we might find Out There, he asked: “Where are the aliens? Are there aliens? Is there new physics to discover?”

SpaceX hoped to present to other humans struggling with the big questions “the idea of us being a spacefaring civilization.” That’s the language Ms. Tetreau and so many others in Brownsville and elsewhere have picked up on: the idea that by “making humanity multiplanetary” by facilitating human settlement of Mars and beyond and by protecting sentience in case humans one day die off here, the “light of consciousness” will be preserved or extended.

It’s language that sounds as if it might come from an Eastern religion — taking the Dao to Pluto — or New Age syncretists . Mr. Musk has self-interested reasons to make this case, of course. If SpaceX has a spiritual mission, then he is a spiritual leader, all the better to receive the approval he seems to crave. In 2021, he argued that he shouldn’t pay higher taxes because it would interfere with his mission to “preserve the light of consciousness.”

But he clearly also believes it. And Mr. Musk is properly understood as a kind of spiritual leader. There’s something of a dividing line among SpaceX fans between engineer types who think the rockets are cool, and those who accept Mr. Musk’s premise that the company is saving the human race. He offers community. He offers hope.

Will any of it happen? It seems doubtful. SpaceX’s Starship has reached orbit. But regular safe transport to the Red Planet is a fabulously difficult proposition, the kind of project that could only be undertaken by sovereign governments. Once the light of consciousness does touch down there, what does it do? Mars may have water and other potential resources, but on top of its profound hostility to human life, the planet looks like the most charmless corner of the American Southwest, without the saving grace of being able to grab a Cherry Coke slushie from a nearby filling station.

In truth, it doesn’t really matter whether Mr. Musk’s most ambitious dreams become reality. (Except to NASA, which is counting on a perfected Starship to ferry its astronauts to the moon in 2026.) We’ve been conditioned by a century of media and storytelling to believe that the next great adventure is waiting for us in space — the frontier extended. We’ll solve our problems out there, unburdened by Earth’s gravity and the weight of thousands of years of history. We’ll make friends, we’ll learn about ourselves, we’ll get wiser and better. And if we can’t quite get there yet, we’ll eagerly wait for the day when we can.

It’s worth noting, though, that astronauts who have experienced revelatory change in space are struck not by how much is up there but by how little. The emotional impact of seeing Earth from a distance is called the “overview effect,” and while everyone experiences it differently, it often manifests as a kind of sorrow and loneliness mitigated by a feeling of community and solidarity with all that remains on Earth.

In July 2021, Jeff Bezos, a different billionaire with a private space program in a different part of Texas, experienced weightlessness, briefly, after being launched by a Blue Origin rocket. A few months later, the company launched William Shatner, the progenitor, as Captain Kirk, of several generations of adolescent space fantasies. When he landed, while Mr. Bezos grinned nearby at the success of his latest toy, Mr. Shatner wept . He was struck not by how much was “up there” but how little. “Everything I had thought was wrong,” Mr. Shatner wrote later . “The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.” He suddenly understood how fragile the home planet was, and he knew it was all we had.

If Mr. Bezos had a flash of the same insight, he didn’t show it. It must be fun to have a toy box like that — with spaceships, cities on the sea, yachts and submarines. But it comes at the cost of sight. Having stretched out their arms for glory, men like Mr. Musk can’t see that their real legacy may be, when the final accounting comes, the price others paid for them. In Brownsville, for each beneficiary of the largess, there are costs: residents displaced, workers injured, endangered animals harmed, a community disrupted.

That’s true everywhere Mr. Musk goes. Our consolation is that we can see right through him and the others. They seem to be no happier. Their preoccupations make them appear strangely small, sometimes even pitiable. Thiel, Mr. Musk’s former business partner, has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to prevent his own death. No poor man could be so foolish.

We have all been given the light of consciousness, to nurture and protect. But for all his abilities, for all his assets, Mr. Musk is stuck looking for redemption in a place that doesn’t hold it. The meaning of life isn’t on Mars, but in Brownsville. The only meaning available to us is in one another: love and friendship, truth and beauty where it can be found, the snowy plover and Noel Rangel in his bed.

Christopher Hooks is a Texas native and writer based in Austin. He is a contributing editor to Texas Monthly.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

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