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Q&A: Kim Fenn, Michigan State University

BY Sunday, October 14, 2018 11:05am

Associate professor of psychology Director of the Sleep and Learning Lab, Michigan State University

New research from Michigan State University’s Sleep and Learning Lab shows the cost to productivity and general health when people fail to get enough sleep. Dr. Kim Fenn’s most recent work documents how sleep deprivation — which she says can be a rare instance of 24 hours without sleep or the more common instances of a lack of sleep several nights in a row — contributes to people being more easily distracted and can lead to obesity. In an interview with MiBiz, Fenn discussed these findings as well as some simple steps people can take to achieve better rest.

Generally speaking, what are the results of sleep deprivation?


Prior work on sleep deprivation has shown fairly unequivocally that lower-level tasks of attention and vigilance — just real basic, low-level processing — is severely impacted by sleep deprivation. But we’re looking at more higher-level functions, so the things you would more likely be doing during the day. That result is somewhat equivocal. Some studies find a strong effect on sleep deprivation, some find no effect. Some that use the same task essentially find different results. So the research of this isn’t really clear when it comes to higher cognitive processing.

What did your latest research find?

What we’re able to do in this study that was somewhat unique is that we were able to use the same tasks to look at both lower-level processing and higher-level processing, and what we found was a selective impairment to higher-level processing in this task.

What do you mean by that?

We found two main effects. The first was that in the evening, before people were sleep deprived, everyone was able to perform the task. That’s pretty important, and people who weren’t able were thrown out of the study. But in the morning, after just one night of sleep deprivation, 15 percent of our participants who were sleep deprived weren’t able to complete the task to our level of criterion.

Did your research find any other interesting results?

The idea is that the participants just have to follow a series of steps in a specific order. As they’re going throughout the tasks, we just interrupt them periodically, and it’s a short interruption, about 20 seconds. What we like about this interruption is it’s really natural. Anytime you’re working, maybe an email pops up on your screen, you get a text message, or someone stops into your office — whatever you’re doing, we get interrupted fairly frequently. What we found is that these participants who are sleep deprived not only made more errors after an interruption, but they showed a linear increase in the amount of errors that they made the longer they performed the task.

This seems to have some serious implications for people’s productivity at work.

If you have some sort of procedural task you’re doing (and) you get there in the morning, early on you’re going to be OK at dealing with these interruptions. But the longer that you do it, the longer you’re on task, the more deleterious these interruptions are going to be for you.

Your research has also pointed out the role that sleep deprivation has played in infamous disasters like Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Can you explain that?

After these major disasters, they do a lot of investigations. It’s not uncommon for nuclear power plant workers to have extended shifts, meaning that they’re on a 10-hour or 12-hour shift. For that disaster … the people who were operating the power plant were sleep deprived, and the accident was officially attributed to that.

Chernobyl might like seem like an extreme example. What are the everyday effects of sleep deprivation on the typical busy American who goes to work in an office every day?

What (research demonstrates is) that you show a complete imbalance … with regard to eating behavior. … Leptin, which is the hormone that signals satiation, or signals to you that you’re full, is produced to a lower extent, so you feel less full. Ghrelin, the hormone that tells you that you’re hungry, is overproduced, so you’re hungrier and you’re feeling less full. At the same time, individuals who are sleep deprived show a higher desire for high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods.

Is the lack of sleep making us physically unhealthy?

While there’s not a direct link between poor sleep and obesity, poor sleep has these really well-documented changes in physiological function, as well as cognitive function. That’s the sort of thing that you don’t notice at all: You may notice that you’re gaining weight, or you might notice that it’s harder to get to the gym, but you don’t know the underlying physiology behind it.

What are some best practices you might offer to the typical executives for whom sleep might take a backseat to their busy lives?

It is a tricky thing. It’s very difficult, particularly for people who have young children, as well as careers and that sort of thing. One tip that I give people that actually I think does help is a lot of times when you’re doing your daily or evening activities, you just sort of lose track of time (and forget to go to bed).

How can you avoid that?

Maybe you’re watching TV or maybe you’re actually getting caught up on work or something. My recommendation is not just set an alarm for when you want to wake up in the morning, but also when you want to go to bed. That’s just a reminder. So instead of watching the end of your Netflix show, you stop it in the middle and resume tomorrow. Whatever it is you’re doing can always wait until tomorrow.

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