The Longer You're Awake, The Slower You Get -- Even if You Don't Feel Tired

By Chelsea Whyte on July 27, 2012 7:14 PM EDT

tired yawning guy
The longer you're awake, the slower you get, even if you don't feel all that tired. (Photo: Creative Commons: Ktoine)

Sleep deprivation can take a toll on the mind's ability to complete simple visual tasks. And even if you're not feeling tired, lack of sleep can slow you down the longer and later you stay awake, according to a new study published in the Journal of Vision.

To test how workers' productivity is affected by lack of sleep, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston collected data from 12 participants over the course of a month.

For the first week, all participants were allotted 10-12 hours sleep per night, in order to make sure they began the study well-rested. For the following three weeks, they each got 5.6 hours of sleep on a 28-hour cycle, mimicking chronic jet lag. During the study, participants were unaware of the time of day.

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They took visual search tests on a computer that recorded how quickly and accurately they were able to find information. These types of tasks are important for people in many fields of work, from air-traffic controllers to baggage screeners to power plant operations monitors.

The team found that participants identified important information more and more slowly the longer they were awake. And while their accuracy remained about the same, over the three weeks of the study, they took longer and longer to identify important information. Participants also performed tasks more slowly from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. - considered the biological nighttime - than they did during the daytime, reports Live Science.

And even though they were performing significantly worse on these tasks, the participants self-rated their sleepiness as only slightly worse than the first week.

"This research provides valuable information for workers, and their employers, who perform these types of visual search tasks during the night shift, because they will do it much more slowly than when they are working during the day," said Duffy. "The longer someone is awake, the more the ability to perform a task, in this case a visual search, is hindered, and this impact of being awake is even stronger at night."

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