Skimpy Sleep Followed by 'Catch Up' Can Hurt Attention & Creativity

Alternating between nights of very little sleep and long “catch up” attempts is linked to poor attention and creativity in young adults, particularly for those working on major projects, according to a new study at Baylor University.

The study, which involved interior design students, is published online in the Journal of Interior Design. The findings have particularly strong implications for art, architecture, graphic design, and other disciplines that use a model of design studio-based instruction, said the researchers.

The study challenges the common myth that “the best design ideas only come in the middle of the night,” said lead author Elise King, assistant professor of interior design in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.

In fact, the findings show just the opposite — that consistent habits are at least as important as total length of sleep.

King adds that interior design is “a strange culture, one where sleep deprivation is almost a badge of honor.” Staying up late to finish a project is not seen as procrastination but considered by some students and faculty members to be a tradition and a normal part of studio-based curricula to prepare them for their careers, she said.

The National Sleep Foundation suggests that young adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each day. But for the 28 interior design students in the study, sleep was short and fragmented. Only one participant slept seven hours or more nightly, while 79 percent slept fewer than seven hours at least three nights during the week.

The researchers measured sleep patterns through actigraphy, in which participants wear wristbands to track movement. Students also kept daily diaries on the quantity and quality of their sleep.

“The wristband is somewhat similar to Fitbit devices, but much more reliable in detection, including the many brief awakenings during sleep that affect sleep quality,” said study co-author Michael Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

Each student also participated in two cognitive testing sessions for creativity and executive attention — each about an hour long. The sessions were done on the first and last day of the study at the same time of day.

“What we call ‘creativity’ is often people’s ability to see the link between things that at first glance seem unrelated, and one of the tests taps into that ability,” Scullin said.

For example, the students are given three words that are loosely connected — such as “sore,” “shoulder,” and “sweat” — and asked to figure out a fourth word that would connect them all.

“What first comes to mind are words related to exercise, but in this case, no single exercise word really works. Instead, the ‘creative’ and correct answer is ‘cold,'” Scullin said.

Importantly, the researchers found that irregular sleep is very bad for executive attention — intense focus for planning, making decisions, correcting errors, and dealing with novelty. Erratic sleep also has a negative effect on creativity.

“The more variability they showed in their night-to-night sleep, the worse their cognition declined across the week,” said Scullin. “When completing term projects, students restrict sleep, then rebound on sleep, then repeat. Major projects which call for numerous tasks and deadlines — more so than for tests — seem to contribute to sleep variability.”

Source: Baylor University