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What Demented Shit Is Happening in Your Brain When You Hit Snooze?

Here’s why an extra 20 minutes of sleep can make you feel so out-of-whack

Given that the whole point of the alarm clock is to wake you up, it’s a marvel that it somehow strengthened the product’s appeal when someone added a button that allows you to delay that process by several increments of nine minutes until there’s no point in waking up at all. I’m speaking, of course, of the snooze button. And yet, here lies the human race, essentially at fisticuffs with a loud, blaring machine at the exact moment we’re in no condition to throw punches. For starters, we’re horizontal. For second starters, we’re barely sentient, which means we’re at peak stupidity.

“Upon awakening, we’re not at our cognitive best,” Terry Cralle, a registered nurse who’s certified in clinical sleep health, tells me. “Attention, alertness, awareness, mental clarity, reaction time, memory and decision-making aren’t up to speed. Then, in this dumb-downed and oft-disoriented state, with no clear signal to wake up or go back to sleep, we’re trying to make a decision and use good judgment about hitting snooze or getting up. Good luck with that.”

It’s such a struggle between knowing we’re supposed to get up, yet being easily convinced no harm can come from a couple extra minutes, that it seems like there are two people within us — an angel of wakefulness arguing with a devil of sleep.

To be clear, whichever one is saying you really need the extra sleep (the devil) isn’t exactly lying. “Your brain and body are clearly begging for more sleep,” Cralle says. The lie part is convincing you that you can use the snooze button to get that sleep, when, in fact, you cannot. That is, this form of sleep is fake sleep. Bastardized sleep. A sleep hologram. Because the only thing worse than not getting enough sleep in the first place is waking up from the deep, restorative REM sleep you’re in at the end of the sleep cycle come alarm time, and thinking you’re going to get more good sleep after you hit snooze. (You’re not.)

Basically, your brain can’t return back to an REM level that deep right away, so instead, it goes into a “new phase of REM,” which is often where it stays the whole day, making you extremely unproductive and foggy. “By hitting the snooze button, you’re throwing off your circadian rhythm — interfering with your body’s natural sleep-wake rhythms,” Cralle explains. “A healthy circadian rhythm is vital for optimal health and mental functioning.”

She adds that it also messes with your mental and neurological health. “Poor quality REM may be linked to depression and Alzheimer’s,” she says. “Waking up suddenly can cause sleep inertia or sleep drunkenness, whether from a night of sleep or nap. Hitting snooze makes sleep inertia worse.” Even worse, the more sleep-deprived you are, the longer the sleep inertia lasts (the recovery taking as long as four hours). 

From a work perspective, there are plenty of embarrassing, career-ending mistakes that have occurred courtesy of the snooze button. Take this tale of the pilot who’d just woken up from a 75-minute nap and was still in such a state of sleep inertia that he thought Venus was another aircraft — headed right for him. He eventually realized the mistake, but not before plunging 400 feet toward the Atlantic Ocean, thinking he was dodging a collision. Similarly, other research has found that U.S. Air Force accidents due to pilot error are most likely to happen within one hour of waking up.

Needless to say, we’re better thinkers and doers after we’ve had time to wake up more organically. “Cognition is best several hours prior to habitual sleep time, and worst near habitual wake time,” neuroscientist and chronobiology Kenneth Wright told the New Yorker a few years back. 

Given how critical it is to get a good night’s sleep, it’s a wonder we have to wake up prematurely at all. But we’ve been doing it more or less since forever. Case in point: in the late 1800s, people used to hire other people, called knocker-uppers, to wake them up (though one wonders who woke up the knocker-uppers). Before that, even Plato had to interrupt his own REM sleep with a water clock. And before that, unpaid roosters, who definitely should’ve unionized, did the dirty work.

Believe it or not, it’s not until the year 1956 when the devil takes mechanical form in the invention of the snooze button, which due to physical constraints could only let us snooze for nine minutes at a time. Which brings us back to today, nearly 60 years later, snoozing our lives and careers away.

If, by now, you don’t feel massively screwed over by the snooze button and Mephistopheles himself, sleep on. If you’re (correctly) enraged and want to stick it to the devil man and reclaim your waking life, try to get up as soon as the alarm goes off, no matter how painful it may seem. 

The key to doing so is figuring out when to go to bed so you can wake up organically, and still be on time for your life. If you must use an alarm, set it, Cralle says, for the last minute possible to get maximum sleep. But you must get up the moment it goes off. If it helps, set the alarm as far away from you as possible so you have to actually get up.

This will all suck, but not as much as accepting that you’ve been tricked by a malevolent force, all in exchange for a few, shitty extra minutes of bad shut-eye.