Sleepy Soldiers’ Split-Second Situation Assessment Skewed

Study demonstrates decrease in ability to make rapid judgement calls due to sleep deprivation.

   By: Nicole Myers        

          In a study conducted at the University of Texas and published in the journal Sleep, researchers found that sleep deprivation negatively impacts information-integration, the type of cognitive processing that allows fast, accurate, gut-feeling decisions.

            Soldiers in combat rely heavily on the ability to instantly make the right decisions in high pressure situations. Researcher Tom Maddox explains, “information-integration… is critical in situations when solders need to make split-second decisions about whether a potential target is an enemy soldier, a civilian, or one of their own.” Unfortunately, combat missions don’t exactly lend themselves to full nights of sleep, and soldiers in these operations are often extremely sleep- deprived.

            The study tested 49 West Point Cadets on information-integration tasks, once as a baseline and then again after 24 hours of either sleep deprivation or a normal sleep-wake cycle. While the rested cadets significantly improved their scores in the second round of testing, the sleep-deprived cadets’ scores dropped slightly. This indicates that even the mild sleep-deprivation of one night’s sleep loss impacted the cadets’ ability to use this crucial form of decision making.

          Researchers observed that one way sleep-deprivation impaired decision making was by causing subjects to shift from the fast and accurate cognitive strategy of information integration to a slower, more controlled, but less-effective rule-based approach, in which they tended to over-think the problems.

          The effect that sleep-deprivation had on decision making varied among individuals. Those who had a tendency to use a rule-based approach to problem solving in the first place were more vulnerable to the effects of sleep-deprivation. Some subjects continued to use an information-integration approach despite sleep-deprivation, and their performance showed no decline in the second set of testing. This suggests that the cognitive function necessary for information-integration strategies is not necessarily strongly affected by sleep deprivation. But, the use of an information-integration strategy in a task may require active inhibition of rule-based strategies, and this inhibitory process is what is vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation.

          An understanding of the effects of sleep-deprivation on various cognitive functions and decision making abilities is critical for a military in a time of war, when enormous physical demands are placed on soldiers who are often deprived of sleep and sustenance and who must make split-second life or death decisions. 

For the original research click: http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=27617

3 thoughts on “Sleepy Soldiers’ Split-Second Situation Assessment Skewed”

  1. This is so interesting. I always knew sleep was a huge factor in normal cognitive function, but never really made the connection of how important it really is for soldiers who need to make snap-decisions on only minimal sleep.

  2. This indicates that even the mild sleep-deprivation of one night’s sleep loss impacted the cadets’ ability to use this crucial form of decision making.

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