Sleep and Decision Making

If you enrolled in a sleep study where you had to go for 1-3 days with no sleep (24-72 hours of total sleep deprivation or consecutive hours awake), you would find that your ability to think clearly, solve problems, and make good decisions would be impaired. You wouldn’t be able to concentrate for very long, you would be more impulsive, you would be more susceptible to mood swings, and you would perform poorly on memory tests. Additionally, performance would progressively become worse the longer and longer you were awake. If you rated how sleepy you felt during this time of sleep deprivation, your rating of how sleepy you felt would match your cognitive impairments. This makes intuitive sense.

Now, if you enrolled in a separate sleep study where instead of getting no sleep per day, you would be allowed to sleep every day but only for five hours per night for 7-14 days in a row (roughly the same number of hours of sleep deprivation, but spread over 7-14 days), you might be surprised to find that over time, your performance on the same cognitive tests would be as equally impaired as it was during the total sleep deprivation study. In other words, at the 10th day of partial sleep restriction, you’d be as cognitively impaired as you were after 2 or 3 days of total sleep deprivation! Together, these studies demonstrate that the effects of sleep loss on thinking abilities are cumulative – the impairments build over time when you don’t get the sleep you need on a day-to-day basis.1-4

There is a very important difference between these two studies which may help explain why chronic sleep loss is rampant in our society. Unlike the first study where sleepiness and cognitive performance tracked together (i.e. the longer you were awake the worse you performed and the sleepier you felt), in the second study there may be a mismatch between your performance and your own subjective sensation of sleepiness. You wouldn’t feel as sleepy as you should, relative to your cognitive performance. In other words, at day 10 of study two you wouldn’t feel very sleepy but your memory would be poor, you would be more impulsive, you would be more likely to take risks, your thinking speed would be slow, you would have trouble concentrating, and you may have a more negative outlook.

9 Responses to Sleep and Decision Making

  1. Jayson Loredo says:

    There are many causes of sleep deprivation. The stresses of daily life may intrude upon our ability to sleep well, or perhaps we trade sleep for more work or play. We may have medical or mental-health conditions that disrupt our sleep, and be well aware that we are sleep-deprived.,:”^

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