Sunday, November 01, 2009

Want to avoid errors? Sleep more

I thought this was pretty well established science, but apparently it's not. A new study has found that sleep deprivation can negatively affect information processing.

A study in the Nov.1 issue of the journal Sleep shows that sleep deprivation causes some people to shift from a more automatic, implicit process of information categorization (information-integration) to a more controlled, explicit process (rule-based). This use of rule-based strategies in a task in which information-integration strategies are optimal can lead to potentially devastating errors when quick and accurate categorization is fundamental to survival.

Results show that sleep deprivation led to an overall performance deficit on an information-integration category learning task that was held over the course of two days. Performance improved in the control group by 4.3 percent from the end of day one to the beginning of day two (accuracy increased from 74 percent to 78.3 percent); performance in the sleep-deprived group declined by 2.4 percent (accuracy decreased from 73.1 percent to 70.7 percent) from the end of day one to the beginning of day two.

According to co-principal investigators W. Todd Maddox, PhD, professor of psychology, and David M. Schnyer, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Texas in Austin, fast and accurate categorization is critical in situations that could become a matter of life or death. However, categorization may become compromised in people who often experience sleep deprivation in fast-paced, high pressure roles such as doctors, firefighters, soldiers and even parents. Many tasks performed on a daily basis require information-integration processing rather than rule-based categorization. Examples include driving, making a medical diagnosis and performing air-traffic control.


I think we've all experience times where we have been sleep deprived, and have our ability to use information be compromised as a result. So the findings of this study shouldn't come as a surprise.

Still, it's good that such things are researched, so it can be quantified how badly peoples' performance is affected. Studies, such as this one, can lead to changes in watch schedules etc. Or, given the fact that the effect is not universal, it could lead to better monitoring of those who have the type of jobs where this might cause problems.

The study is behind the paywall at SLEEP, but the abstract can be found here

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