Sleep Deprivation Hinders Thinking During Crisis

A new study from Washington State University is showing that sleep deprivation hinders the ability of people to make good decisions during crisis situations. This new study was published in the journal Sleep, and it is the first time Washington University researchers could create a simulated high-stakes situations environment. The results of the study are showing that if you go without sleep for a long period of time, you can end up making catastrophic decisions during crisis situations.

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Sleep scientists have had a hard time trying to study this issue because it is not easy to create a controlled lab situation that could really simulate real-world situations and disasters. There have been studies that have shown how not getting enough sleep shows a lack of attention, but there have not been that many studies that show how sleep-deprivation effects cognitive abilities such as quick decision making before. In the real world, sleep-deprivation can lead to the loss of life or horrible decision making, such as the Exxon Valdez oil tanker or the space shuttle explosion, but these types of simulated events have been difficult to reproduce in a laboratory.

Paul Whitney, the Washington State University associate dean and professor of psychology said that “Our goal was to bridge the gap and capture the essential elements of real-world decision making in a laboratory experiment.”

One aspect of this study that stood out was that the laboratory tasks helped capture the essential parts of real-world decision making, such as how you adapt to new information during a crisis situation. Previous studies were not looking at how important it really is to adapt to changing situations, such as in a crisis situation in war or a disaster such as a surgeon in the middle of an operation. This study wanted to look at that aspect of sleep-deprivation to see just when sleep-deprivation starts to negatively impact decision making at times when the events and situations are changing rapidly.

For this study, 26 healthy adults agreed to be part of the study at the Spokane Sleep Center. 13 of these participants were randomly told to go 62 hours without sleep two days into the study, while the other group were allowed to sleep. The participants lived in a hotel-like laboratory for six days and six nights, and they performed special reverse learning tasks which tested their abilities to use feedback to help guide them through decisions. The task involved the participants being shown numbers that were pre-assigned to have a “go” or a “no go” response value, but they did not know that at the time. The participants had less than a second to decide whether or not to respond to the numbers shown. If the participants correctly identified the “go” numbers, then they got a fake monetary prize, but being wrong resulted in a loss.

It took a while to learn, but eventually both the sleep-deprived group and the control group began to catch onto the study and were selecting the right numbers. The researchers then switched the study and reversed the contingencies which means the participants had to not respond to the “go” numbers and then respond to the “no go” numbers. The sleep-deprived group was very confused with the switch of information, even after they were shown 40 examples of numbers with the reversed contingencies. The sleep-deprived group got almost none of the answers right. However, the control group that was rested caught on fairly quickly and began to understand within 16 numbers.

The results of this study show that even if people want to make the right decision, when they are sleep-deprived their brain simply cannot understand the data being shown to them. Even when they were getting feedback about how to proceed with the change, the group that had no sleep could not adapt to this new information in their minds, and could not make the right decisions. In terms of this group, if they were in a real-world crisis situation, this inability to be able to adapt to new information could lead to the severe loss of life or other severe consequences. People who are sleep-deprived end up having to pay financially and legally when they make a mistake that harms other people, but this study shows that people just simply cannot make the right decision because of their brain. It is the inability of the brain to receive and process new information that is the problem, so this study shows how important it is to make sure we are not putting people in situations where they have to make quick decisions on no sleep.

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Jeanne Rose
Jeanne Rose lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has been a freelance writer since 2010. She took Allied Health in vocational school where she earned her CNA/PCA, and worked in a hospital for 3 years. Jeanne enjoys writing about science, health, politics, business, and other topics as well.