Understanding brain states: How your mind functions when tired, versus wired on caffeine

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Credit: Katherine Streeter/NPR

Ever wonder what happens in your brain to make the switch between down-and-out tired, and borderline over-caffeinated? As it turns out, the baseline levels of activity in your brain drastically change depending on your mental mindset. These changes in neural activity across different arousal levels are referred to as “brain states.”

When you’re drowsy or in deep sleep, large groups of cells fire together, or are silent together, forming oscillations in the spiking activity. This kind of activity is highly synchronous, as neurons are acting in similar ways at the same time. Opposing this, when you’re wide awake and actively engaged, your brain enters a desynchronized state – meaning neurons are firing independently of one another. Neurons that are active at different times have low levels of synchrony. Neuroscientists think that desynchronized brain states allow our brains to take in more information, leading to an “enhanced processing mode, reserved for behavioral contexts in which more cognitive resources are required,” as [researcher Russell] Milton explains.

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Although the field was aware that our brain assumes different signatures when we’re about to nap compared to when we’re wired from caffeine, Milton’s work supports the idea that these brain states occur on a spectrum, rather than being isolated points of neural computation.

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