SLEEP
December 17, 2009

The Sleepless Can't Decide

People who are sleep-deprived cannot make split-second decisions, even when lives depend on it.

A new study suggests that people who are sleep−deprived may be at a significant disadvantage when it comes to making important split−second, or “gut−feeling,” decisions. The researchers, who discovered this phenomenon by studying military cadets, say that deficits in this class of decision−making may put others at risk, whether you’re soldier or civilian.

A team at the University of Texas at Austin had cadets from West Point make quick decisions by having them perform tasks under two conditions: once when they were sleep−deprived and once when they had had adequate sleep. The tasks evoked a cognitive process called information−integration, which involves very fast, “gut−level” decisions. When the cadets were sleep−deprived their performance on the tasks dropped by 2.4%; when they were well−rested their performance increased by 4.3%. The researchers found that some participants shifted from the innate method to a slower, more deliberate method of decision−making known as a “rule−based” process. The participants who made this switch when they were sleep−deprived performed even more poorly on the tasks at hand.

The authors point out that there are many professions, like firefighters and police officers, in which making very rapid decisions about critical situations is commonplace and crucial.

Though the numbers may not sound significant, the researchers say that the difference could well affect critical, life−or−death situations. Study author Todd Maddox says that “[i]t's important to understand this domain of procedural learning because information−integration — the fast and accurate strategy — is critical in situations when soldiers need to make split−second decisions based about whether a potential target is an enemy soldier, a civilian or one of their own.”

The authors point out that there are many professions, like firefighters and police officers, in which making very rapid decisions about critical situations is commonplace and crucial. These professionals rely on information−integration under uncertain circumstances often daily, so getting adequate sleep should be made a top priority for their own – and others’ – safety.

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