Researchers at Michigan State University conducted the largest experimentally controlled study on sleep deprivation to date, revealing just how detrimental operating without sleep can be in everything from bakers adding too much salt to cookies to surgeons botching surgeries.
While sleep deprivation research isn’t new, the level at which distractions hinder sleep-deprived persons’ memories and challenge them from successfully completing tasks was not clear until MSU’s team quantified the impact.
“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 Kimberly Fenn, associate professor of psychology and director of the MSU Sleep and Learning Lab. “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.”
The research is unlike previous studies because of its focus on sleep deprivation’s impact on completing tasks. These tasks, Fenn explained, involve following directions and include multiple steps.
Some basic errors, such as adding salt twice to a recipe, might not be so serious. However, some of the world’s greatest human-caused catastrophes – like Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Challenger explosion – along with daily train and car accidents have sleep deprivation at least partially to blame, she said.
Fenn hopes that her lab’s findings will shed light on how critical sleep is to completing any task, be it large or small.
“Every day, approximately 11 sponges are left inside of patients who have undergone surgery. 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,” Fenn said.
Next, Fenn’s research lab will examine the potential of caffeine and nap interventions for helping to offset the negative effects of sleep deprivation.