There’s a Scientific Reason You Can’t Stay Awake in Boring Meetings—Here’s Why

Updated: Aug. 11, 2020

Scientists understand why we get sleepy when we're bored—and how to fight the urge to drift off.

man in a virtual meeting working from homeMorsa Images/Getty Images
You’re in a long Zoom meeting and someone is going on and on about who-knows-what, and your eyelids start to get heavy. You’re fighting the urge to yawn. Perhaps you stayed up too late the night before watching TV or just maybe the topic isn’t all that exciting. That alone will make you drowsy, according to research.

You can try starting your day with energy-boosting foods, but according to 2017 findings from the University of Tsukuba in Japan, getting sleepy when you’re bored is a real thing.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, shows exactly how a bored brain gets tired. The nucleus accumbens, or the part of the brain that is associated with motivation and pleasure, also can produce sleep. When you’re not motivated by or pleased with your current surroundings, your brain is basically sending signals that it’s time to fall asleep. But why? The researchers who worked on the study found that the nucleus accumbens neurons are so powerful that it’s almost impossible to separate those neuron signals from those that prompt natural sleep, known as slow-wave sleep, which is characterized by slow and high-voltage brain waves.

The researchers suggest that the brain neurotransmitter adenosine plays a role in triggering this sleep effect in this part of the brain. It induces sleep via a specific subtype of adenosine receptors called the A2A receptors. Interestingly, caffeine has its popular stimulating effect by blocking those same A2A receptors, also in the nucleus accumbens. The researchers suggest that finding compounds that activate those receptors (instead of blocking them, like caffeine does) may offer safe treatments for insomnia.

How to stay alert

So, what do you do when you’re bored and your body is ready to put your brain in sleep mode? When you find yourself staring off during your meeting, you might find yourself turning to caffeine. But that doesn’t always work. Patricia Salber, MD, founder of The Doctor Weighs In, suggests that “when coffee alone isn’t enough to keep you awake during boring meetings, I recommend getting up and standing, or better yet, walking back and forth… If someone asks why you’re doing that, you can always mumble something about your back.”

In today’s virtual-meeting world, you can always turn off your camera for a few minutes. If you can, leave the room, head outside, and take in the sunshine.

“It will increase your orexin levels, a neuropeptide that helps keep you wakeful. After 10 to 15 minutes, you can go back in and finish the meeting feeling much more alert,” Salber says.

Sometimes, caffeine isn’t what we should be turning to at all. Naturopathic physician Jennifer Stagg says, “Instead of jumping to caffeine, low sugar-electrolyte formulas are my go-to for an energy boost, and staying optimally hydrated is important for energy, so making sure you spread your water intake throughout the day is ideal.”

And of course, getting more shut-eye the night before always helps. If you’re struggling with that too, use these tricks to help you fall asleep.