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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 1:21 EDT

Caffeinated: Afternoon Drowsies Tug at Workers

November 28, 2004

Without fail, Joel Darrow runs into a wall of torpor at 3:30 in the afternoon. The financial engineer describes it as “brick, thick and high.”

He doesn’t exactly go to sleep, he says, but he might as well. “It’s that point in between when you know you’re awake but you’re basically unable to move,” he says. Typically, he’s looking at his computer screen, his back to his office door and a pencil in hand. “Next thing I know,” he says, “the pencil’s on the floor, and I have a thousand-mile stare through the back of the screen.”

A colleague once asked Darrow if he was OK. “It would be easy for someone to think I popped some pill and was in La-La Land,” he says. “Fighting it just prolongs it, and self-medicating with sugar provides brief relief followed by deeper stupor.”

No one exactly schedules a slumberous coma each afternoon, but for many people, it’s more punctual than the coffee cart. No sooner do you get back from lunch than every document seems like an opiate, every colleague a sheep to count, and the creepy carpeting an enticing feather bed. It’s the only time of day when the incessant chatter of a cube mate can fade like a lullaby. Even insomniacs can’t always withstand the contagion of a yawn in the middle of the afternoon.

To stay awake, Pam Sturchio Quandt resorts to such remedies as candy bars, frozen yogurt and coffee. Bribery also comes in handy. “I’ll treat the department if someone goes to get coffee,” says the online marketing director.

Neal Katz, who works in an industry that’s contracting rapidly from layoffs, says fear of becoming one of them is what keeps him bright eyed. “If my eyelids feel like they’re 100 pounds each,” he says, “I still do what I have to do to snap out of it.”

Peri Brand, a recent Indiana University graduate, tries to talk herself through it. “You’ve made it this far,” she tells herself shortly after 2 p.m. But only a can of Red Bull, with its heart- pounding 80 milligrams of caffeine, really helps.

The tussle to stay awake is clearly a sign that work is at odds with our nature. We’re a society that has ritualized the sleep deprivation that caused such disasters as the Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl, so our daily battle is also evidence of just how dumb the planet’s smartest beings have become.

“You’re phenomenally stupid when you’re sleep deprived, and you’re too stupid to realize it,” says Bob Stickgold, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “We are certainly the only known organism that sleep-deprives itself.”

Most mammals are designed to stay awake if there’s rapidly changing emotional input, Stickgold says. But monkeys, for example, don’t tend to put their social needs on a collision course with their sleep needs, the way humans do.

The main problem is that the mechanics of the human body don’t mesh very well with a 9-to-5 work day. Researchers have found that when humans are fed at regular intervals and deprived of all sources of time, such as light and clocks, they have the greatest tendency to fall asleep during two periods of the day: between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. and 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. These are natural dips in our biological clocks, or circadian rhythms, and the core body temperature drops along with a person’s eyelids.

Potentially plunging us farther into oblivion is a metabolic tendency — called the post-prandial dip — to get tuckered out after a meal, though researchers disagree on how much of it is attributable to the meal.

“In the afternoon, all these physiological and mental processes begin to go into a dip,” says Sara Mednick, a researcher at the Salk Institute. “This dip used to be thought of as a post-lunch dip. But it’s been shown to occur when people eat or don’t eat.” In fact, from the moment you wake up in the morning, she says, “there’s pressure driving you back to sleep.”

There’s also increasing evidence that in the Middle Ages people napped all the time, Mednick says. But the advent of timepieces, light bulbs and factories made naptime inconvenient for all but the crankiest toddlers. “We’re allowing society and pressures of modern age to prescribe our sleep and thought schedules,” she says.

Which is why it’s such a struggle for Kimberlee Peters, a mortgage-loan processor, to fight off the languor after she eats Chinese food. “I want to crawl under the desk,” she says. Besides walking around, her defense methods focus largely on mild forms of self-inflicted torture. She takes her halogen desk light and blasts it in her face. To increase her discomfort, she also kneels sideways in her chair and listens to a thrashing Limp Bizkit CD. Gossip also can breathe a little life into her. “I’ve actually never seen someone get so pumped from gossip,” confides a friend.

Bob Stern, a retail advertising manager, resorts to more spiritual stimulants. They include yoga and transcendental meditation, which bored him to sleep when he first tried it but now re-energizes him. When the yoga and meditation aren’t convenient, he turns to Hershey bars, Baby Ruths and Snickers. “They keep me happy,” he says.