To anyone who's flown before, this is something of a no-brainer. Your mind and body drift in and out of a haze--a haze sometimes held at bay with stimulants like caffeine-- and when it finally comes time to sleep, you crash hard. Rinse, lather, repeat until you get "back on track" a few days later.
Yet this article--and by extension, the study it's based on--says that "getting back on track" takes longer than we think. A lot longer; sometimes more than 28 days to bring our brains back up to speed. Almost the same amount of time it takes to work off a sleep debt.
The main goal of the study was to see if jet lag had any effects on the brain's ability to learn. In order to exercise more control, they uses hamsters instead of your typical frequent flyer.
While they pushed the hamster's sleep schedule ahead to simulate jet lag, they did not restrict sleep; the hamsters got their normal hamster amount every day.
However, the hamsters performed poorly on tasks that involved memory and learning throughout the experiment, even long after they had been returned to their "normal" time.
That right there is what makes these findings so interesting.
We know that a lack of sleep can affect memory and impair learning. We also know that certain types of sleep are responsible for certain types of memory processing and learning.
However, it was assumed that as long as you got enough uninterrupted sleep, your body and brain would continue to function as normal. The poor learning abilities that were manifested in the jet-lagged hamsters now has researchers asking:
"Does our internal biological clock influence certain brain functions associated with our intellect?"
Put another way:
"Is there a link between circadian rhythm and learning?"
The paper's answer is maybe. Admittedly, much more work needs to be done to link learning to circadian rhythm, including using humans to try and duplicate this particular study.
That said, other scientists are independently raising similar questions ( I love it when this happens!) so you can bet that similar papers--and newspaper articles--will pop up.
Although it may sound a little wonky at first, there's already solid research about the effect circadian rhythms have on behavior, regardless of surroundings.
For this standpoint, the idea that one's ability to learn and process information could be tied to this same principle doesn't seem as strange as it did before. The original headline makes you think so, but admittedly, that was my way to get your attention.
Where this all goes from here is unknown but rest assured, it's going to be a little splashy, a little nerdy, and pretty darn cool.