Beat the Buzzer: Why You Hate Your Alarm Clock

By Alyse Borkan  |  Aug 15, 2014
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Every morning, when you’re ripped out of Lullaby Land, your day starts in the worst way possible. You have to wake up because you have things to do, your life to lead. There’s no way around it. So you set your alarm and brace for that inevitable disruption.

But why does waking up to an alarm suck so badly? According to science, there are actually reasons at play:

1. The Chemicals

You know how falling asleep feels great? Like, really, really great? That’s because it’s sort of like getting high. When you fall asleep, your brain starts releasing serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin regulates happiness, and it’s the same thing that floods your brain when you take drugs like Molly, giving you that awesome warm-and-fuzzy-I-love-everything feeling. Melatonin, which causes drowsiness, works in concert with a chemical called adenosine — also causing drowsiness — which increases throughout the day. The longer you’re awake, the sleepier you get, and you can thank adenosine for that. While you sleep, your body purges it. You stay asleep because the melatonin is telling you to.

Your body knows that waking up is stressful, so as you near wakefulness, your body prepares by releasing cortisol, orexin, and adrenaline, which are stress hormones. They give you energy, that early morning fight-or-flight kickstarts your body for the day. Your heart starts beating faster, along with your breathing. Your brain starts producing different brainwaves.

Everything changes. “It’s almost like we are different people when we wake up,” says Dr. Edward Pace-Schott, a Harvard psychiatrist.

All of these chemicals are supposed to be released at very specific times, but your alarm clock doesn’t care. It goes off before you’re ready to wake up, forcing your brain to play catch up, stress out, and pump all these hormones out at the same time.

It’s the “cocktail shaker” effect, with all these neurotransmitters and hormones bouncing around inside your body, confusing you. The chemicals clash, and you wake up groggy and tired, a phenomenon known as….

2. Sleep Inertia

Coined in 1976, sleep inertia refers to that disoriented period between waking up and actually waking up. The more abruptly you wake up, the worse the case of sleep inertia — and it is directly related to which sleep stage you wake from. Some sleep stages are lighter than others, and these are when your body wants you to wake up. Somehow, miraculously, your alarm clock always catches you at exactly the wrong time.

Waking up actually takes a lot longer than you may think. The pieces of your brain responsible for your basic physiological functions perk up almost immediately, but your decision-making and self-control pieces, like the prefrontal cortex, “take longer to come on board,” as Maria Konnikova pointed out in the New Yorker.

And she’s definitely right. When you first wake up, your memory suffers, as well as your alertness and ability to focus, according to several studies.

What’s more, you’re only sort of even awake. A recent study at Brown University took students out of class in the morning and brought them to a sleep laboratory. They fell asleep in the lab and entered REM sleep, a cycle “more typical of the end of sleep than its onset, showing that these students are physiologically still asleep, despite having gotten up in the morning.”

These students may have had a melatonin-hangover. The sleep hormone is supposed to vanish as we wake up. It’s supposed to be replaced with those wakeful stress hormones as we near morning. Instead, “the hormone typically dissipates two hours after waking,” as neuroscientist Kenneth Wright concluded.

Alarm clocks make you into a sleep-zombie, then. You think you’re awake, but you’re not really. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid this because of…

3. Social Jet Lag

You’ve heard of your body’s “biological clock” before, right? It’s actually called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN for short), and it’s in your hypothalamus. It’s what helps you “maintain a sleep-wake rhythm very close to 24 hours,” as per the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

But it’s not exactly 24 hours, so it needs external cues like light to guide it. Your eye senses light and most of it is processed into images you consciously perceive, but some of it goes to your SCN, where it interacts with certain proteins. When you mix outside influences with your SCN, you get your circadian rhythms, which is what dictates when your body releases all the chemicals from section one, “The Chemicals,” controlling when you go to sleep and when you wake up.

If you ignore your circadian rhythms because you’re a human living in 2014; because you watch television as you’re falling asleep and check emails in bed; because you have a job that you have to wake up for early in the morning; if you use an alarm clock and find yourself tired all the time, it’s called social jet lag. It’s a measure of sleep timing. If your biological clock and social clock differ by an hour or more, you are socially jet lagged. You and 70 percent of the world’s population.

Social jet lag didn’t exist before alarm clocks. And that’s why they suck so much: if there was no violent ringing on your bedside table, you couldn’t force yourself out of bed before your body was ready. You wouldn’t be so rudely kidnapped from the land of Nod.

Maybe that’s what the people at General Electron-Telechron were thinking about when they introduced the snooze button in 1956. The Snooz-Alarm was, at the time, “the world’s most humane alarm clock.” They were offering some respite from the pain and suffering of social jet lag. They thought they were doing the world a favor. We can’t blame them; they didn’t know it would make everything much, much worse.

– Josh Segal

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