How Sleep Deprivation Messes With Your Memory
As science continues to illustrate just how critical sleep is for the mind, and how much upkeep it does for the brain, some people may be taking it a little more seriously than they did. For others, it’s still a waste of time that takes away from more worthy activities, like work or watching TV. But a new study from Michigan State University—the largest sleep deprivation study to date—shows yet another way in which sleep in necessary for normal cognitive function: It helps us get back on task when distracted, rather than falling off the rails.
The study was published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
As the authors point out, mistakes, from the mundane to the catastrophic—Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Challenger explosion—have been linked to sleep deprivation.
“If you look at mistakes and accidents in surgery, public transportation and even operating nuclear power plants, lack of sleep is one of the primary reasons for human error,” said study author Kimberly Fenn. “There are many people in critical professions who are sleep-deprived. Research has found that nearly one-quarter of the people with procedure-heavy jobs have fallen asleep on the job.”
To look at how just a night of sleep deprivation can affect a person’s ability to get back on task once distracted, the researchers had over 230 people come into the lab at night and carry out a cognitive task that involves following a series of tasks in a particular order. They were occasionally interrupted from their work, after which they had to recall where they were and resume the correct order from that point on.
Half the group then went home to sleep, while the other half were kept up all night in the lab—then they all completed the task again. Among the sleep deprived, a fairly large portion (15%) were “unable or unwilling to achieve a modest level of accuracy that they were instructed to achieve and were able to achieve the evening before,” the team writes. Among those who got sleep, this number was just 1%. The performance of the sleep-deprived also got worse over time.
“Every day, approximately 11 sponges are left inside of patients who have undergone surgery,” said Fenn. “That’s 4,000 potentially dire missteps each year and an example of a procedural task gone terribly wrong that can result from sleep deprivation. Our research suggests that sleep-deprived people shouldn’t perform tasks in which they are interrupted – or, only perform them for short periods.”
Interruptions from a colleague at the office or even the distraction that comes from a smartphone notification could, if sleep deprivation is at play, affect our ability to find our right place again. And aside from surgery and operating heavy machinery, it might apply to a variety of other duties, from the less significant (following a recipe) to the critical everyday tasks (giving a child medication).
Thomas Edison apparently said, “Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.” Though some people may still believe this, science continues to prove how wrong the sentiment actually is. Since sleep helps the brain restore itself, and even heal itself, hopefully more people will realize that it really is a non-negotiable pastime.