As midterms roll around, I think it’s only fitting that this blog post discusses one of the most important and crucial elements of a college student’s life– sleep. I was originally going to delve into the terrible effects of sleep deprivation on things like attention and memory, but I stumbled upon a very interesting argument while researching this topic. In a study by Mihaela Chraif from the University of Bucharest, it was found that a lack of sleep could actually improve certain cognitive functions. I was almost positive that I had completely misread, but after looking over the study a few more times, I realized how much more interesting it would be to discuss this, rather than lecture you all about the negative cognitive effects of not getting enough sleep. Also, I’m pretty sure most of you already know the effects through first hand experiences, because I sure do. That being said, let us dig into the positive outcomes of sleep deprivation. (Yikes, it sounds so odd just to type that!)
This experiment tested 74 students, male and female, ranging from the age of 19 to 24 years old, so it was intentionally geared towards testing the impact of sleep deprivation on young adults. The process involved giving the students a perception tachistoscope test. This meant that a series of 19 images, one of them seen below, were flashed on the screen very quickly. After, the students were asked “indicate the relative objects in the image,” as the study puts it. One group of students were under the influence of 24 hours of sleep deprivation (the experimental group), while a second group was not(the non-experimental group).
The results from this experiment were quite surprising to me. The group that was sleep deprived gave more correct answers and fewer incorrect answers in comparison to the other group that was rested. The difference between the two groups not only existed, but was pretty significant, as seen in the data table from the study below.
But what does this mean cognitively, and how can this relate to the everyday life as a student?
Chraif et al. essentially discovered that students who were sleep deprived performed better at the task, which involved short term memory, perception, and attention. However, the study concedes that the primary reason sleep deprived students were able to do so well was because the brain actually becomes more activated when it is suffering from such a thing. A neurophysiologist in Italy researched this concept by “prodding” a rested and sleep deprived brain with an electrical jolt. The latter brain subsequently responded with more intense and more immediate activity spikes. In a way, the brain is put on high alert due to the absence of sleep. While this seems cool, it’s actually just because it’s a defense mechanism employed by the brain to cope with the extreme condition it is in, like an adrenaline rush. So, when the brain is jittery, or on high alert, it makes sense that it is then able to respond better to cognitive problems. Tasks, like those in the study, that involve sensation, perception, attention, and short term memory, therefore come easier to the sleep deprived brain because the brain is in a heightened state of activity.
It is also important to note that obviously, the ability to successfully perform cognitive functions when sleep deprived is unsustainable and temporary. The study admits that it only measured the sleep deprived group in a very short term sense, so having that group recall information even ten minutes after being presented with the stimulus would yield different results. Many studies have evaluated the effect of sleep deprivation on the brain in a long term period, and found that neurons become worn out without sleep. That leads to errors in encoding information, and thus errors in recall.
So in conclusion, sleep is necessary to all humans, especially college students. While I know it is hard to commit to the recommended seven to nine hours, I urge you all to try and be well rested for all of your approaching midterms. Though the findings of this study are fascinating, just know that it probably isn’t the best idea to take your midterms on a few hours of sleep and rely on the “watchdog” function of your mind to carry you to an A+.