Attention and Creativity Suffer in Young Adults Who Alternate Between Sleep Deprivation and Sleep Marathons

New research from Baylor University shows that young adults who frequently alternate between skimping on sleep and sleep marathons have worse creativity and attention, especially if they are working on big projects.

Study co-author, Michael Scullin, from Baylor Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, who is also an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, notes that those who had more variability in their sleep each night were more likely to show  decline in their cognitive abilities throughout the week.

Especially in the heat of major school projects, students will intentionally lose sleep to get the work done, but then they follow that up with a marathon, doing this repeatedly throughout the school year.  The many deadlines and tasks associated with big projects outnumber those that come with exams, and these tasks and deadlines contribute to the variability in sleep.

These findings were published in the Journal of Interior Design, and it was specifically for those students in the interior design program; however, findings also had implications for those in the graphic design, architecture, art, and other programs that use studio-based instruction.

Assistant professor of interior design at Baylor’s, Elise King, noted that some students believe that sleep deprivation is a sort of badge of honor.  Working late is not seem as procrastination.  Instead, it is seen to be a tradition, or a culture, that is a normal part of a curriculum based in a studio.  This, they believe, helps students prepare for their career.

King notes that most people do not understand the difference between being a decorator and being an interior designer, so those in the interior design field tend to work harder to show their differences.  Recently, however, Ms. King noted professors and administrators have seen consequences to that type of thinking, including depression, mental health issues, and anxiety.  Furthermore, they recognize the dangers to driving while sleep deprived.

There is a common myth among designers, which is that the best designs are only going to come in the middle of the night.  That is a myth, however, and the truth is quite the opposite, in that regular and consistent habitual behaviors are just as important as the length of sleep you receive each night.

Executive attention functions, such as intense focus, planning, decision-making, and self-correction are negatively affected by irregular sleep patterns.  The study found that erratic sleep patterns also contribute to a decline in creativity.

The recommended amount of sleep for young adults is seven to nine hours each night; however, the 28 interior design students that were part of the Baylor study experienced fragmented sleep and shorter durations.  Just one person slept seven hours a night, and 79% got fewer than seven hours at least three nights a week.

Dr. Scullin noted that most of the students thought they were getting at least four more hours of sleep each night than what they were actually getting.

School projects for interior design are generally lengthy, with deadlines and due dates lurking several weeks or months in the future.  Most students have several projects they are trying to juggle, all of which have different tasks and deadlines.  The stress of trying to manage all these projects likely contributes to the cycle of several days’ sleep deprivation followed by several catch-up days.

Actigraphy was used to measure sleep patterns in these students, all of whom wore wristbands to sense and track their movements.  Participants were asked to keep a daily diary of the quality and quantity of their sleep as well.

Like a Fitbit device, the wristbands detect movements and arousals, but they are far more reliable and sensitive.

Students were asked to complete two testing sessions to look at their executive attention and creativity.  Each session was done in a laboratory for about one hour.  They were done on the first and last days of the study, both at the same time of day.

Creativity is described as someone’s ability to link things that, at first sight, seem to be unrelated.  Another of the tests looks at that ability.  For example, students were asked to choose a fourth word to connect three loosely related words, such as shoulder, sweat, and sore.

Generally, most students thought of words that were related to exercise; however, there was really no single type of exercise that really worked to connect the three words.  The ‘correct’ answer to link those three words was not exercise related at all, but instead it was a creative word, ‘cold.’

Working memory, or executive attention, allows people to store short-term memories while doing other tasks unrelated to that memory.  In this research, students were asked to complete tasks that had a black and white grid with squares.  Students had to make a quick decision on whether the grid was symmetrical.  These types of decisions on symmetry are easy to make; however, after several rounds, a different-colored grid was shown to the participants.  It was highlighted in red, and students repeated the cycle several times before having to recall the locations of the squares in the correct order.  Cycling between these two tasks proved to be a challenge for the students, especially with regards to keeping the square locations in mind.

Researchers note that additional investigations into how students respond to this cultural sleep behavior will be needed to determine true effects.  This research should have a bigger range of students in various studio-based programs across multiple universities.

Programs for interior design are changing fast, because people are now open to discussions about curriculum.  They are now willing to reduce the pressure put on students and focus on encouraging them to live a healthier life instead.


Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development.

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