Washington State University researchers created a laboratory experiment that simulates how sleep loss affects critical aspects of decision making in high-stakes, real-world situations. Their results provide a new understanding of how going without sleep for a long period can lead doctors, first responders, military personnel and others in a crisis situation to make catastrophic decisions.
Investigations into the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in Ukraine, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger lead to the conclusion that sleep-deprived operators played a role in causing the accidents.
Researchers recruited 26 healthy adults to take part in their study conducted at the Spokane sleep center. Associate dean and Professor Paul Whitney said, "There had been a disconnect between decision making in the lab where the effects of sleep loss appeared to be minimal and decision making in the real world where sleep loss can lead to big problems. Our goal was to bridge the gap and capture the essential elements of real-world decision making in a laboratory experiment. The data show that no matter how hard a person wants to make the right choice, sleep loss does something to the brain that simply prevents it from effectively using feedback."
The study provides a new insight for investigating how sleep deprivation produces decision errors in real-life situations where information emerges over time.
The study appears in the Sleep.