Home > Attention > The Importance of Sleep In the Context of Attention–Why you should sleep before your exams

The Importance of Sleep In the Context of Attention–Why you should sleep before your exams

Sleep is a mysterious thing. Still, it’s commonly known that sleep is an extremely important process in many different ways. Among these important functions, it’s a well-known finding among cognitive psychologists that sleep is heavily involved with cognitive performance. Consequently, sleep deprivation, or lack of sleep, can be responsible for markedly declined cognitive performance on a wide array of tasks. Tasks such as memory tests and attention measures show forgetting and inability to focus, among other reductions in cognitive function.

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Don’t fall asleep on bread.

The negative effects on cognition that sleep deprivation causes have frequently been thought to be a general decrease in function, as opposed to a specific effect with particular characteristics. In this way, the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive processes are not fully understood. However, a recent study by researchers at the University of Trieste in Italy attempted to explore some more specifics about how sleep deprivation affects the brain and cognitive function.

One of the most important parts of cognition that suffers when we don’t sleep is attention. Attentional processes are involved in focusing on the task at hand. We are all familiar with gaps in attention. From being unable to focus the morning after a long night of partying, to being unable to sit still in anticipation of an exciting event, or being extremely tired after staying up all night with a newborn baby, we are all familiar with having difficulty focusing on specific parts of our lives. Thus, attention is a very important process, because it controls our ability to do anything. As David Strayer put it, attention is the Holy Grail. It controls how cognitive processes work, and what they work on.

Posner & Raichle (1994) previously devised a model that denotes three separate components that collectively make up attention: alerting, orienting, and executive control. Alerting is essentially the quality of being alert or ready to attend to stimuli, orienting is ability to select from a variety of information, and executive control is basically control over what information is attended to and “let into” conscious awareness. Overall, both “alerting” and “orienting” are primarily automatic, and as such can occur outside of conscious awareness. However, the last component—executive control—is heavily dependent on controlled processes, which are the mental processes that take effort and time to carry out. To provide an example, say you are trying to answer a very hard multiple choice question on a final exam, but you keep thinking about the season finale of Breaking Bad that’s on tonight. Your ability to inhibit those irrelevant thoughts is a controlled process—executive control.

It seems paramount to understand exactly how attention suffers with lack of sleep. Using the alerting, orienting, and executive control model of attention, the Italian study tried to specifically determine which parts of this dynamic scheme of attention are suffering.

Jugovac & Cavallero (2012) began by separating 30 participants between the ages of 20-29 into two groups: the first group slept normally the previous night and the experimental group had 24 hours of sleep deprivation prior to the experiment. The experiment used the Attention Network Test, which basically compares performance on three types of attentional tasks. An array of various stimuli, such as five left and right arrows, are presented in a horizontal line and changed according to which attentional task is being tested, and the participant must select a direction on the keypad that corresponds to a “target.” In other words, a participant must be attentive to notice when and how the display has changed. An individual baseline was established for each individual prior to the study.

The control group was found to have normal functioning on all aspects of attention, as was hypothesized by the researchers. However, the group that experienced lack of sleep had decreased executive control in attention, meaning they could not coordinate between various stimuli in terms of attention. Still, the sleep deprivation group had normal results for the other two types of attention, and as such the only affected aspect of attention was executive control. As an aside, previous research findings such as decreased reaction time and poor cognitive performance in sleep deprived subjects were supported by this study.

To provide a real-life example of this effect, imagine if you had not slept for 24 hours before an exam as a result of an all-night cramming session. While taking the exam, alerting and orienting would be essentially unmodified, and so one would be able to pay attention to stimuli and would be able to pick which stimuli to focus on. However, the ability to decide between stimuli, or “let one in” as opposed to another one, would be decreased. Say, in this example, that the professor is bouncing his/her hand on a loud stapler throughout the exam. If you are sleep deprived, it is going to be significantly harder to focus on the test than if you had gotten a full night’s rest.

In effect, Jugovac & Cavallero’s (2012) ANT study on sleep deprivation suggests that lack of sleep specifically alters the executive control of attention, rather than alerting or orienting to stimuli. In essence, sleep deprivation has a real effect on attention with real consequences, and the remainder of attention, such as alerting and orienting to stimuli, are fundamentally retained.

As such, the real message here is to make sure you get enough sleep before any important task, for this reason among many others! So make sure you get some shut-eye before that test!

For further reading focused on attention and sleep:
http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2014/05/10/can-loving-kindness-meditation-increase-positive-affect-and-attentional-control/

http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2014/05/04/can-you-sleep-your-way-to-becoming-mozart/

http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2014/05/02/cant-remember-where-you-left-your-keys-try-getting-more-sleep/

 

References

Jugovac D, Cavallero C. Twenty-four hours of total sleep deprivation selectively impairs attentional networks. Experimental Psychology 2012;59:115-23.

Posner, M. I., & Raichle, M. E. (1994). Images of mind. New York: Scientific American Library.

Link to paper: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/zea/59/3/115.pdf

Categories: Attention Tags:
  1. November 23rd, 2014 at 14:45 | #1

    This post brings up some interesting points. I know numerous Colby students who stay up all night cramming for an exam the next day. Not only does this sleep deprivation affect one’s attentional control, but it has also been psychologically evidenced to be a terrible study strategy. Instead, students would better remember information if they studied it over various study sessions prior to the exam.

    I also wanted to discuss a possible variable within this study. Say the participants are college students who regularly stay up all night; would they eventually learn how to have more attentional control because their bodies get used to not sleeping? Is attentional control adaptive?

  2. October 8th, 2014 at 23:44 | #2

    I was especially drawn to this article because of my bad habits of not getting much sleep on a daily basis, especially when it comes time to exams. In fact, when I have an exam I often may just take what can be considered a nap or just not sleep at all. Therefore, I personally experience a decline in my ability to focus and store information. This deficiency can be related to one of the seven deadly sins of memory by Daniel Schater, absent –mindness, in which the inability to properly attend to something to be learned effects the proper encoding needed to be able to recall information in the future.

    Furthermore, I enjoyed understanding attention through the three sections: alerting, orienting, and executive control. In my personal experience I do find truth to the executive control being the component modified when there is a significant less amount of sleep. In comparing this to the capacity framework model we can understand how sleep specifically affects the amount of capacity available, capacity demanded and especially how attention is allocated.

    Moving forward I have questions on the correlation of these results and exam scores. Although, it may seem obvious that one is less focused throughout an exam when it comes to conscious cognitive functions, would it be possible to still do just as well or better if strengthening or naturally having great unconscious processes of alerting and orienting.

  3. October 8th, 2014 at 00:18 | #3

    This article really hits home with me, because I have sleep apnea. This has affected me for most of my teenage years, and over the years I definitely noticed a change in my cognitive functioning. I noticed a drop-off in my ability to retain information that was being presented by my teachers, and I noticed that I was zoning out more frequently while reading. For example, in order to fully comprehend a passage in a textbook, I would have to re-read sentences several times because I kept zoning out. Like the article mentioned, lack of sleep really does affect executive control of attention.

    After reading this article and thinking about how sleep affects our cognitive functioning the next day, I’m curious as to the permanent effects that sleep deprivation can incur. Several years ago, I underwent testing at a neuropsychologist’s office. Specifically, he was trying to see if my sleep apnea had hindered cognitive development and overall functioning. My tests results were normal for my age group, but one flaw in the assessment was that I had no baseline to compare the results to. I was normal when compared to peers of my age group, but what if sleep deprivation had hurt MY cognitive potential? There is no way of knowing this unless you have a baseline to compare it to, but this too introduces complications. Ideally, researches would test a toddler’s cognitive abilities/potential and then test them again as adults, to see if sleep deprivation had stunted their cognitive growth and prevented them from reaching their cognitive potential. But many obstacles stand in the way: oftentimes sleep apnea develops as the child develops, so oftentimes there is no way of knowing whether a person will have sleep apnea until they are in their teens. The method of testing, as well, creates problems. The tests that I underwent consisted of topics including: vocabulary, math, motor skills, reading, writing, etc. Surely a toddler wouldn’t be able to take and pass the same test given to a teenager. Also, methods as to how to measure a person’s cognitive potential is not so clear-cut. The importance of a good night’s sleep and its significance regarding cognitive functioning has been supported by a host of studies, such as the one explained in this article. But this only shows the temporary effects of a good/bad night’s sleep. How does a history of sleep deprivation, over the course of many years (or even a lifetime), affect a person’s cognitive development? We already know that a good night’s sleep is extremely important to be able to function the next day, but what if quality of sleep can impact your cognitive functioning permanently? I think that this will be the future of the study of sleep and cognitive functioning.

  4. October 7th, 2014 at 19:40 | #4

    Ever since high school my parents and peers would always recommend a good night of sleep before a big exam. This article was eye-opening to me because it gave real evidence to back up the recommendations I have been hearing for years. Next time I have a big exam I will make sure to get a good night of sleep so that my executive control does not fail me!

    The results seem to indicate that there was an effect in the executive control of sleep deprived people because the executive control is not an automatic process like alerting and orienting. Is this related to the idea of capacity theories of attention? In other words, maybe sleep deprivation reduces our level of attentional resources so that we no longer have enough resources to perform all three components of attention.

    The findings of this experiment are very useful in exploring the links between attention and memory, but I would also be interested to see if further research could be produced to investigate the same issue further in detail. For example, in our cognitive psychology class we learned about Logan’s (1990) Instance Theory that states that as we form more memory traces, we no longer need to perform an algorithm for retrieval, and eventually with enough memory traces we develop a type of automatic process. These memory traces would allow us to perform a task such as 24+53 much quicker and easier than if we had to perform it through an algorithm. It would be interesting to do further research concerning sleep deprivation and attention and see if the results differ when the task at hand is pure memory recall versus analytical thinking or problem solving.

  5. October 7th, 2014 at 19:33 | #5

    Ever since high school my parents and peers would always recommend a good night of sleep before a big exam. This article was eye-opening to me because it gave real evidence to back up the recommendations I have been hearing for years. Next time I have a big exam I will make sure to get a good night of sleep so that my executive control does not fail me!

    The results seem to indicate that there was an effect in the executive control of sleep deprived people because, unlike alerting and orienting, executive control is not an automatic process. Is this related to the idea of capacity theories of attention? In other words, maybe sleep deprivation reduces our level of attentional resources so that we no longer have enough resources to perform all three components of attention.

    The findings of this experiment are very useful in exploring the links between attention and memory, but I would also be interested to see if further research could investigate the same issue further in detail. For example, in our cognitive psychology class we learned about Logan’s (1990) Instance Theory that states that as we form more memory traces, we no longer need to perform an algorithm for retrieval, and eventually with enough memory traces we develop a type of automatic process. These memory traces allow us to perform a task like 24+53 much faster than if we were to figure out the answer through an algorithm. It would be interesting to do further research concerning sleep deprivation and attention and see if the results differ when the task at hand is pure memory recall versus analytical thinking or problem-solving.

  6. ehheilbr
    October 3rd, 2014 at 11:12 | #6

    I was drawn to this article because I am someone who requires a lot of sleep in order to be able to focus well on anything the next day, so I was curious what Cody Eaton had to say about the specifics of sleep’s importance. He writes that attention is one of the “most important parts of cognition that suffers.” This made me think about all of the attention studies we recently talked about in class; did the researchers tell the participants how much sleep they should get in order to rule out this potential third, and very important, variable as an explanation of performance? Cody cites a model devised by Posner & Raichle that emphasizes how executive control, which is not an automatic process, is very difficult to control on little sleep. This is basically not being able to control the wanderings of your mind when you are tired, something I am sure we are all familiar with; Cody gives the example of thinking of a TV show while doing a multiple choice test. What if this happens during a more critical activity, such as driving? Will our minds wander so much with lack of sleep that we don’t even pay attention to the road? I am not surprised by the results of the Attention Network Test used in the Italian study (that the “only affected aspect of attention was executive control”) because Cody has made it very clear that that area of attention is most affected by lack of sleep. I suppose it is “lucky” that lack of sleep does not affect alerting or orienting to stimuli; if it did, chances at survival would be lessened because we wouldn’t respond to exogenous cues that may alert us to danger. One question that came up for me was if a quick nap the next day could repair the damage done from only a few hours of sleep; will a 30-minute nap restore our executive control? Or is a full night of sleep required for restoration? However, I think this was a clear blog post that I will definitely keep in the back of my mind, especially when I have an exam the next day!

  7. cskrasni
    October 1st, 2014 at 20:32 | #7

    Great post! The findings of this study were well integrated into everyday life. It seems right that the two automatic processes of attention, alerting and orienting to stimuli, are unaffected by a lack of sleep. Because they are automatic they require much less effort and happen unconsciously, which we don’t need to be too awake to do. It is an important finding that executive control, the conscious component of attention is affected by sleep loss. This could easily be a problem for students but more importantly this could cause some large problems for driving, which is a task that many people often do while sleep-deprived.
    In class we have talked about how distracted driving can be very dangerous and, in the light of capacity models of attention, often has an effect when doing any other task while driving. Driving, especially in a busy city or winding road in the dark, is a task that requires a large amount of attention. If some of your limited amount of attentional resources are allotted to a second task, such as talking on the phone, a decreased awareness and narrowed field of vision occurs.
    Now imagine the consequences of a sleep-deprived driver that has a decreased ability to focus on the task that they want to, or at least should, focus on. This would make stimuli like a strange house or someone familiar walking on the sidewalk much more difficult to ignore to keep your attention directed on driving. The result would likely be a decrease in awareness much like that seen in driving while talking on the phone.

  8. September 25th, 2014 at 12:36 | #8

    Clearly, sleep has a large impact on our ability to attend to information. I thought this post did a great job breaking up and hilighting the different aspects of the complex attention process. I particularly appreciate the real-life example provided by the author of this post because it was very relatable to the average college student!

    Alerting and orienting to stimuli are both automatic processes, and they were less affected by sleep deprivation. Executive control of attention, on the other hand, is a controlled process and it was affected the most by sleep deprivation. That result made me think, how is does the processing between automatic and controlled processes differ so that one can be so effected by sleep? Even further, how does sleep interfere with our ability to make decisions and respond appropriately to our surroundings?

    There is also an interesting connection between this post and the post “Can Loving-Kindness Meditation Increase Positive Affect and Attentional Control?” (May 2014). In the study mentioned in that post, the reserachers used the Stroop Task to measure participants’ attentional control. I think it would interesting to investigate the interaction between sleep and performance on the Stroop task, another measurement of Executive Attention. According to the results found by Jugovac & Cavallero (2012), we would expect sleep-deprived participants to be less successful at the Stroop Task.

  9. May 9th, 2014 at 19:16 | #9

    This was a very well written and interesting post, and with finals coming up, I definitely agree with the other comments about this article being particularly relevant to college students. One question I had about the conclusion of the study is what exactly decreased executive control in attention means. You mentioned how executive control is uncoordinated between different stimuli. Is it possible that the decrease in coordination of selecting the stimuli to be attended to is a result of a problem with the filter in the filter attenuation model we talked about earlier in the semester? In the model, the attenuation filter is more sensitive to certain stimuli depending on context, so it blocks some things and attends to important stimuli. Does uncoordinated executive control in attention mean that you have a problem with sorting what is attended and what is not? One application I can think for this study is in the field of medical education, specifically for medical interns and residents who most likely do not get 8 hours of sleep a night. Based on the results of this article, lack of sleep for these individuals could have significant implications because any distractions while these people are working could cause them to lose focus in what they’re doing because of uncoordinated executive control, which could potentially result in harm to others. One possible future experiment could be to increase the length of sleep deprivation to see if it induces a decline in function of alerting or orienting. One way you might test alerting is the say the participant’s name. Normally, due to the Cocktail Party effect, the participant’s name should be heard even if it’s not being attended to. If the participant does not respond to their own name, then alerting capacity has probably decreased. Orienting might be tested by exposing the participant to various stimuli and asking him/her to consciously focus their attention on one of the stimuli. If the participant has trouble with this task, orienting ability most likely has diminished.

  10. May 9th, 2014 at 00:45 | #10

    I thought this post was very interesting and relatable. As many college students are often sleep-deprived, it is really intriguing to know exactly what happens to you when you are sleep deprived (other than being really cranky). The summary of the study was clear and concise. While the executive control portion of attention is affected the most by sleep deprivation, I wondered how performance on an exam would be affected as well. Would a student who is sleep deprived be able to perform the same as a student who had a good nights sleep, especially if this study proves that alerting and orienting are generally unaffected? I also wonder how much sleep deprivation is enough to trigger a decline in executive control. Is there some kind of threshold of amount of sleep that you absolutely need in order to maintain executive control? This study definitely uncovered a broad area of research that is relatable to all college students as college students would definitely sleep the least amount possible while still maintaining executive control the night before a test. An unrelated but interesting idea would also be to see how much the sleep deprived group improves their executive control with a turbo shot of expresso an hour before the exam. Would caffeine be enough to improve their executive control or would that remain largely unaffected because of the extreme sleep depravation. This post definitely got me to think about my own sleeping habits and how I feel groggy and unable to multitask when I don’t get enough sleep.

  11. May 8th, 2014 at 16:45 | #11

    I found this post really interesting and accessible, especially since it seems that in college we are always sleep deprived and can’t seem to catch a break. I thought the result of the executive control of attention being affected to be the most interesting result because this is the same thing that is affected in DAT patients, as shown by their results in Stroop task. It would be interesting, then to see how the results of DAT patients on the Stroop task would compare to the sleep deprived patients from this study on the same task. I wonder if they would produce similar results (although I would hope that the students whose minds are youthful would not have as strong effects as the DAT patients). If a person is consistently sleep deprived, would they experience more and more decreases in executive control of attention over the course of their days of sleep deprivation or is there a sort of threshold that is reached where they can’t have any more of a decrease in their attentional control? It would be interesting to test this, but also possibly unethical because I’m not sure for how long you can sleep deprive someone before it becomes unethical (so a somewhat questionable experiment). Overall, this article definitely convinces me that I need to sleep more…now I just have to find time to do so. It might be even more difficult to do so since my attention is so scattered, that, as Erin mentioned in the previous comment, multitasking may be difficult. Therefore, I’m probably staying up later trying to multitask than I would if I were working on a full night of sleep. I definitely think that more research should be done on this topic, especially in college students, one of the most sleep-deprived populations.

  12. May 7th, 2014 at 20:51 | #12

    First I wanted to say that this was really well written and accessible to people who don’t know much about cognitive psychology. I thought that the topic was really interesting because of how frequently myself and many other college students get such little sleep before exams. Because of a lack of attentional control control, I wonder how much multi tasking is affected as well. Along with that I would be interested to see if sleeping for a bit right before the exam would help you regain attentional control and how little sleep you would need right before the exam to have enough to ensure you focused during your exam. I found it very interesting that only executive control was affected because of the lack of sleep. It makes me think what would affect other parts of attention. I can only imagine the decrease in attentional control for sleep deprived patients considering their decline in attentional control already evident. It would be interesting to see what a sleep deprived college student looks like compared to an early dementia patient. Over all I thought this was a very interesting post!

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